When we start heading into the winter season, you may not immediately think of going to a lake. But if you enjoy watching birds, winter is a great time to learn about waterfowl! There are many species of water birds that we can find in our area in winter. Most of them spend the breeding season in the Northwestern U.S. or Western Canada! They migrate to their non-breeding grounds in the fall, and can be found in Southwest Ohio throughout the winter. However, their movements can be somewhat unpredictable, and they may be found in a small mixed flock, alone, or in great numbers. Any winter excursion to a body of water may yield exciting surprises for birders!

Before you go, it may be helpful to know what to watch for! There are a few basic categories of waterfowl, and knowing their characteristics can help you quickly identify which bird you’ve found. 

Dabbling Ducks

A northern shoveler floats on a lake. There are leaves and other plants floating in the water.
“Northern Shoveler” by jc-pics is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Dabbling Ducks should be familiar to most. They are medium-sized ducks that feed near the surface of the water, grabbing small aquatic animals and plants – think of the Mallards that are common here year-round. You may see their tails in the air as they reach for a tasty morsel, but they don’t fully dive under. They can be found near the edges of deeper water, shallower lakes and ponds, or even flooded fields and wetlands. Some species you may see in our area include Northern Shovelers, Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeons and Northern Pintails.

Diving Ducks

A male bufflehead diving duck floats on a lake. It is mainly white, with brown feathers across the back. It has iridescent feathers on its head.
“Bufflehead male” by Doug Greenberg is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

As the name suggests, diving ducks dive under the surface of the water to feed. Their diet and appearance can be very similar to dabbling ducks, but all you need to do is observe them for a moment to know you have a diving duck! Some birders are surprised to learn just how long these ducks can stay underwater and how far away they are when they pop back up! While these ducks do not necessarily need a large body of water, they typically prefer deeper waters. Some species you can expect to find in the winter are Canvasbacks, Redheads, Scaups, Buffleheads, Goldeneye and Ring-necked ducks. The Bufflehead will be noticeably smaller than other ducks.


A red-breasted Merganser floats on a lake. Its reflection can be seen in the water.
“Red-breasted Merganser” by naturalengland is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mergansers are actually a subset of diving ducks. They are unique because they have long, thin, serrated bills to help them grasp fish. They have longer necks and an overall slimmer silhouette compared to other ducks, but you may also notice the spiky crests on their heads. Occasionally, when a merganser comes back up with a fish in its mouth, a gull or even a bald eagle will try to steal its prey! This winter, keep an eye out for Common Mergansers, Red-breasted Mergansers and Hooded Mergansers. 


A pie-billed Grebe floats on a lake. There are leaves falling in the water around the pie-billed Grebe.
Pie-billed Grebe on Sharon Lake by Lisa Salehpour (2021)

Grebes may seem like diving ducks at first, but they are actually in a separate family. Like some diving ducks, grebes have slim bodies and long necks, and they range in size from small to medium-large. They dive to catch small invertebrates and fish and can have short, thick bills or long, thin bills depending on diet. However, ducks have webbed feet, while grebes have large lobed feet. They are still great swimmers, but they can be clumsy on land because their legs are set back farther on their bodies making balancing a struggle! The most common grebe in our area will be the small, brown, Pie-billed Grebe. However, you may also come across a Horned Grebe, Eared Grebe or Red-Necked Grebe.


A black and white common loon floats atop a lake. It is peering toward the right.
“Common Loon – winter” by Len Blumin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Loons are large water birds that dive in search of prey. They have lobed feet like grebes, but their legs are even farther back on their bodies, making movement on land next to impossible! They also sit lower in the water, giving them a unique profile, as you may mostly notice their long neck and dagger-like bill peering up like a periscope. Loons are known for their eerie yodeling call, but you most likely won’t hear this in winter. Common Loons are, well, common visitors, but Red-throated Loons are harder to find.


Two white Snow Geese stand in a field. The crops have been cut down for winter.
“Snow Goose” by esellingson is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Geese are large, heavy-bodied, long-necked waterfowl. Most of us are familiar with Canada Geese. But in winter, keep an eye out for other goose visitors! You may spot the Snow Goose or Ross’s Goose, both of whom are all white with black wingtips. The Ross’s Goose is less common, but you may recognize it by its stubbier bill and smaller size. We are technically only on the snow goose’s migration route – they breed on the Arctic tundra and spend the winter in massive flocks along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts – but there are still sightings throughout the season. You may also find Greater White-Fronted Geese, who are greyish all over with some white around their bill and dark speckling along their breast.

Now that you know a goose from a grebe and a dabbler from a diver, head out for a birding adventure! Try your luck at Miami Whitewater Forest – both the lake and the wetlands, Lake Isabella, Sharon Woods, Otto Armleder Memorial Park, or Winton Lake and Winton Woods settling pond. There are sure to be some interesting finds in Great Parks this winter. Happy Birding!

Lisa Salehpour
Nature Interpreter, Sharon Woods