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18 White Birds in Florida

white birds in florida
Swallow-tailed Kite in Miami-Dade, Florida: Photo by Evan Reister

Introduction

Whether you’re a local Floridian or just visiting the Sunshine State, you’re in for a birdwatching treat. Florida’s a hotspot for birds, with a lot of white birds included. Have you seen a white bird and don’t know what it is? Ready to discover where to find them? Let’s dive right in!

Great Egret – Ardea alba

  • Quick Facts: Adult great egrets stand at over 3 feet tall. They have long black legs and feet and a thick, pointy, yellow bill (although sometimes it can be black elsewhere in the world), good for catching fish and frogs. During breeding seasons, great egrets will develop beautiful plumes from the tops of their backs down to their tails. Great egrets have special neck vertebrae for lightning-quick strikes. They’re monogamous during each breeding season, picking new partners the next. Great egrets live in both freshwater and saltwater habitats – ponds, rivers, lakes, estuaries, marshes, you name it.
  • Range: Throughout Florida, especially in the central and eastern regions of the state. Try Everglades National Park for a look at some huge great egret colonies!
  • Fun Fact: Their courtship dance is extravagant – they extend their neck and bill upwards when trying to get it on. Maybe give them some privacy if you see this.

Snowy Egret – Egretta thula

  • Quick Facts: Snowy egrets are recognizable by their slender black bill and yellow feet. Their lores (the patch of skin between their eyes and bill) are bright yellow, except during the breeding season when they have more of a reddish tinge. Like great egrets, snowy egrets can also be found in pretty much any wetland habitat, salt- or freshwater, as long as they have little, darting fish to hunt.Snowy egrets can be quite aggressive when defending their nesting territory. Keep your distance!
  • Range: Throughout the state, but most common during winter months along the coast. Try Sanibel Island near Fort Myers.
  • Fun Fact: Their feathers were once worth more than gold and their numbers hugely depleted due to hunting.

Cattle Egret – Bubulcus ibis

  • Quick Facts: Small white heron with a compact, yellow bill. In breeding season, they don tan, golden feathers on their head, breast, and back. They are easily recognizable by their hunched posture. Cattle egrets are often found in drier areas than other egrets and herons. They often follow cattle or tractors, picking off the insects their larger predecessors stir up from the grass.
  • Range: Originally native to Africa, cattle egrets have made themselves at home across Florida, mostly in farmland. Visit some of the more rural areas near Kissimmee and see if you can spot some of these little guys!
  • Fun Fact: Cattle egrets eat ticks off cattle – a win-win relationship, otherwise known as a mutualistic symbiotic relationship.

Little Blue Herons (Juvenile) – Egretta caerulea

  • Quick Facts: Juvenile little blue herons are not blue initially. They sport a completely white plumage which helps them blend in with groups of other white herons, providing safety and feeding opportunities. They have blue-gray bills, dull greenish legs, and gray-green lores. As they mature, they undergo a transition period where their white feathers are gradually replaced by the adult’s slate-blue plumage, resulting in a piebald appearance. As they grow, they can reach a size of 60-68 cm in length and have a wingspan ranging between 102-115 cm. Juveniles exhibit great adaptability in their diet, feeding on a wide variety of prey including small fish, amphibians, crustaceans, and insects. Their feeding techniques vary and can be observed lunging at prey with a rapid thrust of their bill. Juveniles transition into adulthood in their second year, at which point they adopt the rich blue plumage and begin participating in breeding seasons, which generally occur between March and July.
  • Range: Juvenile little blue herons can be found in a variety of wetland habitats across Florida. Prime locations to observe them include marshes, swamps, riverbanks, and estuaries. The Everglades host particularly notable habitats for these young birds.
  • Fun Fact: During their transitional phase, juvenile little blue herons exhibit a striking mix of white and blue feathers, creating a beautiful piebald effect that is a pleasure to observe. This transition is not just physical but also marks their journey into adulthood, embracing new behaviors and mating rituals that come with maturity.

White IbisEudocimus albus

  • Quick Facts: Adults have all white plumage with black wing tips typically seen only in flight. The red decurved bill and legs and the bright blue eyes make white ibises unmistakeable. The young ones have brown feathers until they mature. White ibises forage in saltmarshes and shallow wetlands. Many have become quite accustomed to humans and can be found in lawns and parking lots, scavenging for leftovers. They fly in a V-formation during migration. They probe the ground with their beaks for food.
  • Range: Most common in coastal areas. Go to Wakodahatchee Wetlands in Delray Beach to look for white ibises!
  • Fun Fact: According to Floridian folklore, ibises are the last birds to hide before a hurricane and the first to come out and are therefore seen as a symbol of both danger and optimism.

American White Pelican – Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

  • Quick Facts: American white pelicans are some of the largest birds in North America. Hard to mistake with any other bird due to their size and massive orange bill with a pouch for scooping up fish. (“Mine! Mine! Mine!” – Finding Nemo, anyone?) The pelicans can hold around three gallons(!) of water in their bill. Unlike their brown relatives, they don’t dive for fish, rather foraging along the surface in flocks. Their coordinated group fishing is a spectacle. The preferred habitat of these birds are estuaries and coastal inlets, but they can occasionally be found more inland.
  • Range: Throughout most of the state, but most commonly along the coastline. Try Lake Okeechobee if you don’t want to hit the beach.
  • Fun Fact: They fly in V-formations, often riding thermals, pillars of hot air that give the heavy birds greater lift without using too much energy.

Wood Stork – Mycteria americana

  • Quick Facts: Wood storks are huge, long-legged black-and-white storks. Perhaps their most obvious giveaway is the bald, wrinkly head. These birds are often seen standing motionless, waiting for prey, or moving slowly with their open bills held in the water They are found in wetlands, especially flooded swamps and shallow ponds. Spot them in groups; they’re social birds!
  • Range: Pretty much all over Florida, given the right habitat. Head to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples to try and find some wood storks.
  • Fun Fact: Wood storks are the only storks that breed in the U.S. – unfortunately their numbers have been rapidly declining like many other waders.

Whooping Cranes – Grus americana

  • Quick Facts: Whooping cranes exhibit white plumage adorned with red crown and black facial markings as they reach adulthood.  Whooping cranes are tall birds, with adults standing up to 5 feet tall. Juveniles grow rapidly to reach this size, and their wingspan can stretch to 7.5 feet, which aids them in long migratory flights. Whooping cranes primarily feed on small aquatic creatures such as crustaceans, amphibians, and small fish, often foraging in shallow waters and marshy areas. As they grow, their diet expands to include grains and plant matter. Whooping Cranes have historically used Florida as a part of their wintering grounds. Between November and March, some Whooping Cranes migrate to the southern parts of the United States, including Florida, to escape the colder temperatures found in their breeding grounds up north. 
  • Range: There is currently one self-sustaining flock of whooping cranes that winter throughout central Florida. The best place to find them is in the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the west coast between November and February/March.
  • Fun Fact: There was a reintroduction project called the Eastern Migratory Population, wherein cranes were taught to migrate from Wisconsin to Florida using ultralight aircraft, a project led by the Operation Migration as a part of the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP). However, this project was concluded in 2015, and now efforts are focused on establishing a self-sustaining population in the eastern US with a primary wintering area in the southeastern states, but not limited to Florida.

Snow Goose – Anser caerulescens

  • Quick Facts: Snow geese come in two color morphs: white-bodied with black wingtips and a “blue morph” which sports a darker, bluish-gray body with a white head. They have pink bills and legs and sometimes show a slight yellow staining on the head. Snow geese are primarily known to breed in the Arctic and migrate south to spend the winter in warmer areas. While Florida is not a primary wintering ground, some groups or stray individuals might be spotted in the state during the winter months (from late November to early March). Primarily herbivorous, they feed on a variety of plant materials such as grasses, sedges, and grains. Snow geese can be found in various wetlands, marshes, and agricultural fields.
  • Range: While Florida isn’t a primary destination, you might find small groups or individuals in the right habitats. They are more likely to be found in Northern Florida compared to the southern regions. Check out St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, where they can occasionally be spotted amidst other waterfowl.
  • Fun Fact: Snow geese are known for their loud, honking calls which can often be heard before the flock is even visible. These vocalizations play a vital role in coordinating the V-shaped flying formations that they are known to adopt during migration.

Mute Swan – Cygnus Olor

  • Quick Facts: Mute swans are huge birds with long necks, black faces, and red-orange bills. They are some of the largest and  heaviest flying birds in the world. Mute swans are originally from Europe and Asia but have been introduced in the United States to decorate ornamental ponds and lakes but have now settled and spread further. They can fly at altitudes of up to 8,000 feet. That’s almost as high as a typical helicopter can hover!
  • Range: Try the lakes of Orlando’s public parks for mute swans
  • Fun Fact: Males are known as cobs; females are pens.

Laughing Gull – Leucophaeus atricilla

  • Quick Facts: Laughing gulls undergo various plumage phases throughout the year. Adults sport a black head, white neck, and gray wings during the breeding season but in the winter, they showcase a white head with a gray nape.  Typically, the breeding season occurs between April and July. Laughing gulls nest in colonies, often found in marshes and barrier islands along the Florida coastline. Laughing gulls are omnivorous, feeding on a varied diet including insects, fish, crustaceans, and occasionally food scraps from human sources.
  • Range: Laughing gulls are a common sight along Florida’s coastlines, including beaches, estuaries, and mangroves. They can also be found in inland areas such as garbage dumps and agricultural lands. Popular spots to witness these gulls include the Florida Keys, Tampa Bay Area, and various coastal areas throughout the state where they are often seen foraging along the shorelines or soaring over the waves.
  • Fun Fact: The Laughing gull derives its name from its distinctive call, which resembles a high-pitched laugh, “ha… ha… ha…”. This laugh-like call is a common sound in coastal Florida – it can brighten anyone’s day (until your snack is snatched from your hands by one of the gulls). 

Ring-Billed Gull – Larus delawarensis

  • Quick Facts: Ring-billed gulls are medium-sized birds with a distinctive black ring around their yellow beak, a feature that grants them their name. They showcase a white body, yellow legs, and yellow eyes, coupled with gray wings that have black tips.  While some ring-billed gulls are year-round residents of Florida, a significant number migrate to the state to escape the colder winter temperatures found up north, usually between November and April. They are omnivorous, often feeding on insects, fish, and crustaceans, but they have also adapted to forage on human food scraps and garbage, showcasing a very versatile diet. These birds are versatile and adaptable, found in a variety of habitats including coastal regions, lakes, rivers, and even urban areas with bodies of water. They are a common sight in parks, beaches, and garbage dumps.
  • Range: In Florida, you can commonly observe them at places like the Everglades National Park, Lake Okeechobee, and along the shores of both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. 
  • Fun Fact: Ring-billed gulls are incredibly adaptable and have learned to thrive in human-altered environments. These intelligent birds have even been observed using pieces of bread as bait to catch fish, demonstrating their problem-solving abilities. 

Gull-billed Tern – Gelochelidon nilotica 

  • Quick Facts: Unlike most terns, gull-billed terns have a stout bill, hence the name. They’re very pale overall with a black cap in breeding plumage and black legs. Gull-billed terns are agile flyers, often catching insects in flight. Their diet is diverse, from crabs to lizards.
  • Range: All along the state’s coastline but particularly Florida’s Gulf Coast, especially around Tampa Bay.
  • Fun Fact: Gull-billed terns will often pirate or steal fish from other birds, including young chicks. Yikes.

Caspian Tern – Hydroprogne caspia

  • Quick Facts: Caspian Terns are the largest terns, showcasing a striking appearance with their bright white body, pale gray wings, and a distinctive black cap on their head during the breeding season. They have a robust, red-orange bill that stands out vividly against their black cap. Outside the breeding season, their cap might be speckled with white or gray.  They generally breed from April to July, nesting in colonies often on sandy or pebbly beaches and sometimes on the flat rooftops of buildings in urban areas. They predominantly feed on a diet of fish, which they catch with their sharp bills after a spectacular aerial dive into the water. They may also consume large insects and crustaceans. Caspian Terns can be found along the coastline, especially on sandy beaches, mudflats, estuaries, and lagoons where they can have easy access to their primary food source, fish.
  • Range: Some popular spots to observe these birds include the Florida Keys, Tampa Bay, and the shorelines along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Protected areas like the Everglades National Park and various other state parks also provide suitable habitats for these birds.
  • Fun Fact: Successful businessman and lifelong birder Arthur Cleveland Bent described Caspian Terns as “king of all the terns . . . the dominant ruling spirit in the colonies . . . the largest, strongest and fiercest of the terns.” High praise.

Forster’s Tern – Sterna forsteri

  • Quick Facts: Forster’s terns have a graceful appearance with a slender body and long, pointed wings. During the breeding season, they exhibit a black cap on their head which transitions to a black eye patch in the winter. Their underparts are white, and they have a noticeable long, forked tail. The bill is orange with a black tip during breeding and turns black in non-breeding seasons. When breeding, they nest in colonies, often in marshes and on islands along the coastline, laying 2-4 eggs per season. Their diet primarily consists of fish and crustaceans, which they catch with a swift aerial dive into the water, similar to other tern species. They also feed on insects occasionally. You can find Forster’s Terns in various coastal habitats including salt marshes, beaches, lagoons, and estuaries. They can also be found inland near lakes and rivers, especially during migration.
  • Range: Some popular places to observe these elegant birds include the Tampa Bay area, the Florida Keys, and regions along the Gulf Coast. They are also often seen in the Everglades National Park, where the diverse ecosystems provide ample feeding opportunities.
  • Fun Facts: Forster’s terns are known for their migratory behaviors, traveling long distances between their breeding and wintering grounds. During their flight, they exhibit graceful aerial maneuvers, making them a delight to watch. Furthermore, their courtship displays are quite charming; males often present fish to females as a part of their courtship ritual. That’s more than can be said for every human.

Red-billed Tropicbird – Phaethon aethereus

  • Quick Facts: Red-billed tropicbirds are spectacular birds with stout, red bills and are known for their long, white tail streamers. They can live up to 16 years in the wild. These tropicbirds are often seen far out to sea except during breeding when you may be lucky enough to spot them around rocky islands near shore.
  • Range: There aren’t loads of records of red-billed tropicbirds in Florida but Dry Tortugas National Park off of Key West might be a good place to try for them.
  • Fun Fact: The red-billed tropicbird was one of the species originally described by Carl Linnaeus, “the father of modern taxonomy,” in his 1758 edition of Systema Naturae.

White-tailed Kite – Elanus leucurus

  • Quick Facts: White-tailed kites have a striking white body with gray wings and black shoulders. They hover above open fields before diving down for prey, mainly feeding on small mammals, such as mice or voles, snakes, and other prey. The kites perch on tall vegetation in open landscapes like coastal plains and agricultural areas.
  • Range: White-tailed kites can be found in open grasslands and fields in Central Florida. Look for them hovering!
  • Fun Fact: White-tailed kites hunt by facing into the wind and hovering up to 80 feet in the air while scanning the ground for movement. It then dives down to snatch prey with its feet down and wings up.  

Swallow-Tailed Kite – Elanoides forficatus

  • Quick Facts: Swallow-tailed kites are easily recognizable due to their distinctive silhouette. They have a sleek body with long, narrow wings and a deeply forked tail, which gives them a graceful flight. The plumage is predominantly black and white, with black wings and a white head and underparts. They usually breed between March and May in Florida. They are known for their elaborate nests built high in the trees, primarily in swampy forests. Their diet mainly comprises insects, small vertebrates, and birds. They are also known to eat fruits occasionally. Notably, they have the exceptional skill to feed while in flight, using their talons to handle their prey. Swallow-tailed kites are commonly found in the wetlands, swamps, and forests. During the breeding season, they prefer areas with abundant tall trees to nest.
  • Range: Places like the Everglades National Park, the Apalachicola National Forest, and the Big Cypress National Preserve are popular locations where these birds can be spotted in Florida. They are more commonly found in the central and southern parts of the state.
  • Fun Fact: Swallow-tailed kites undertake a remarkable migration journey from northern South America (Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia, to name a few starting points) to North America, covering thousands of miles each year. During this migration, they form large communal roosts.

Conclusion

Florida’s unique habitats provide homes for diverse bird species. Grab your binoculars, a field guide, and a sense of adventure. Remember to be respectful of nature and enjoy the mesmerizing world of birding in the Sunshine State!