Alberta’s Merry Migrators: Water wings and hopes of spring

This is part two of a four part series on migrators. You can find the first part on songbirds here.


There are still several weeks of winter left until we see one of the most iconic signs of spring – a group of Canada geese flying in a “V” formation. Alberta’s water birds are spending the winter in warmer southern climates.

Can you identify the different kinds of water birds? How about being able to distinguish diving ducks from dabbling ducks?  Hopefully these tips will help you recognize our different types of water birds, their physical traits and diet.

Our last migration story was about songbirds that migrate south during winter because their food – insects and bugs –become scarce. Water birds (swans, geese, ducks) are faced with a similar challenge because their food is found in water, and once ice forms it becomes impossible for them to access food. Not only that, but some water birds, like loons, need open water to take off.


Western grebe – diving bird

Water birds eat a variety of things: aquatic vegetation, fish, aquatic invertebrates, and occasionally amphibians. Some species specialize in one food type while others have a broader diet. When birds are migrating south, they rely on areas where they congregate to rest and find food, called staging areas. These could be open water bodies or grain fields.

As with songbirds, the diet of water birds can often be determined by the beak. Take the loon – the long pointy beak is used to catch fish whereas a broad beak, seen in swans, geese and dabbling ducks, is better suited to eating vegetation.

The body shape is another clue to what and how the bird eats. The loon is a swift diving hunter, with a sleek body and feet far back under the body. This body type is not designed for walking (that is the reason loons need open water to take off). Contrast this body type with the trumpeter swan who has a large body and feet centered under the body.

These water birds are sure to make a splash in the coming months. Keep your eyes on the sky for some real fowl signs. Returning from points in the southern United States and Mexico, our original snowbirds are looking forward to flocking back to summer in our province.

2 thoughts on “Alberta’s Merry Migrators: Water wings and hopes of spring

  1. Pingback: Alberta’s Merry Migrators: Bits and Bats | Alberta Environment and Parks

  2. Pingback: Alberta’s Merry Migrators: A little birdie told me spring is here! | Alberta Environment and Parks

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