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Anhinga preening it's feathers in the sun.

Commonly Confused Birds in Central Florida

Knowing how to identify these species from afar can make outdoor activities more enjoyable and create a deep connection to the wildlife habitat we live near. All of the birds discussed below are easy to identify with a little practice. I encourage you to go on a nature walk or visit a park after reviewing the list, to test your new skills. It can be easier to identify birds from afar with binoculars. Like all skills, bird identification becomes easier with practice.

Black Vultures vs. Turkey Vultures:

Black vultures are large raptors with short, rounded tails. They are predominantly black and their wing tips are lighter in color. Black vultures have bare heads with gray-black skin. Their bills are narrow but strongly hooked. They typically nest in forested areas but are often seen in open areas during the day seeking food. Black vultures are typically found roosting in forested areas in tall trees and structures such as:

  • Sycamores
  • Pines
  • Hickories
  • Oaks
  • Junipers
  • Bald Cypress
  • Electrical or telephone poles

Turkey vultures are also large, dark birds with broad wings. They are dark brown with red, featherless heads and pale bills. The undersides of their flight feathers are paler, which gives a two-toned appearance. Turkey vultures have long tail feathers which extend past their feet in flight.

A black vulture and a turkey vulture,.

Comparison of coloration on the black vulture (left) and the turkey vulture (right). Photo compilation attribution at bottom of blog post.

The easiest way to distinguish between black and turkey vultures is to look at their tails in flight. Black vultures often fan their blunt tail out in flight. Turkey vultures, who have significantly longer tails, hold their tails straight behind them in flight.  Another way to tell these vultures apart is by using their wing coloration. In flight, black vultures’ wings are only lighter at the tips, whereas turkey vultures have a lighter coloration along the whole backside of their wings. Black vultures are typically seen flying higher, relying on their excellent eyesight to spot prey. Turkey vultures fly lower, relying on their sense of smell to find their food.

Comparision of the the wing coloration on a black vulture versus a turkey vulture. The turkey vulture has white down the length of the wing whereas the black vulture has white only at the outer wing tips.

Comparison of wing coloration on the turkey vulture (left) and the black vulture (right). Photo compilation attribution at bottom of blog post.

Cormorants vs. Anhingas

Cormorants are large, brown-black water birds with short, blunt tails. They have small heads, with yellow-orange facial skin and long, kinked necks. Cormorants have heavy, hooked bills that are roughly the length of their heads. When in water, their bodies are not completely submerged (unless diving for prey), but they do sit low in the water. Cormorants can be found living near bodies of water such as:

  • Lakes
  • Ponds
  • Smaller lagoons

Anhingas are large, dark water birds with long, thin necks. They have long tails and silver patches on their wings. Anhingas’ bills are long, thin, and pointed. When in the water, they submerge their entire body, and only their head remains above water. They will dive completely under water to hunt and catch prey. Anhingas can be found near quiet, calm waters in places such as:

  • Slow-moving rivers running through Cypress swamps
  • Mangrove-lined inlets and lagoons
  • Lakes with dead, standing trees (also called snags)
  • Wooded ponds
  • Freshwater marshes
Close up image of the Double-Crested Cormorant and Anhinga demonstrating the differences in beak shape.

Comparison of double-crested cormorant (left) and the anhinga’s (right) beak shape. Photo attribution at the end of the blog post.

The best way to tell if a bird in question is a cormorant or anhinga is to use their beaks. Anhingas use their long, straight, pointed beak to spear their prey. Cormorants, on the other hand, use their hooked bills to grab their prey. Both species hunt their prey by submerging themselves underwater. They both lack oils on their feathers, allowing them to submerge underwater. Because of this, both cormorants and anhingas have to air-dry between hunts by holding their wings out while perched.

Red-Headed Woodpeckers vs. Red-Bellied Woodpeckers

Red-headed woodpeckers, as their name suggests, have entirely red heads. They also have white underparts, and black backs with large white patches on their wings, making their backs appear to be all white when perched. Red-headed woodpeckers have large, rounded heads and short, stiff tails. They also have light colored, spike-like bills. Red-headed woodpeckers can be found in open woodlands in places such as:

  • Open pine plantations
  • Farmland tree rows
  • Grasslands with scattered trees
  • Roadsides
  • Forest edges

Red-bellied woodpeckers have slightly tinted red bellies, as their name would suggest. They have a red stripe going down the back of their head with dark bills. Their wings are checkered with black and white. Red-bellied woodpeckers can often be found in urban neighborhoods, but also in forested areas like:

  • Woodlands
  • Wooded suburbs
  • Mixed oak-hickory forests
  • Mixed pine-hardwood forests
  • Pine flatwoods
Red-bellied wodpeckers have a checkered pattern on their back and white face whereas a red-headed woodpecker has a fully red head with a black back and white wing patches.

Comparison of the plumage on a red-bellied woodpecker (left) and a red-headed woodpecker (right). Photo attribution at the end of the blog post.

Both red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers have red coloring on their heads. However, the best way to tell them apart is to look at whether or not their entire head is read. Red-headed woodpeckers have entirely red heads, while red-bellied woodpeckers only have a red stripe. Another way to tell these two species apart is to observe their wings because they are quite different from one another.

Bald Eagles vs. Ospreys

Bald eagles are incredibly large raptors with broad wings. As juveniles (~1-4 years old) their bodies are mottled dark brown with varying amounts of white. At maturity, bald eagles appear as we often know them with solid white heads and tails. Their legs and bills are bright yellow.  Bald eagles can typically be found in habitats adjacent to waterbodies, like:

  • Lakes
  • Reservoirs
  • Rivers
  • Marshes
  • Coasts

Ospreys are large hawks with slender bodies and white heads with a broad brown stripe through their eye. Ospreys are brown with white breast feathers. They have long legs and long, narrow wings that (from the underside) are mostly white, mottled with brown. They also have a dark patch on the top bend of their wings. Ospreys live around nearly any body of water, such as:

  • Saltmarshes
  • Rivers
  • Ponds
  • Reservoirs
  • Estuaries
  • Coral reefs
In flight, the osprey has wings which are bent into a slight M shape whereas the bald eagle's wing shape is straight across.

The shape of the wings in flight can help distinguish osprey (left) from bald eagles (right). Photo attribution at the end of the blog post.

One way to tell these two species apart, despite their different coloring, is by viewing them in flight. Bald eagles hold their wings flat like a board while ospreys have a bend in their wings which make an “M” shape when viewed from below. Both bald eagles and ospreys feed on fish. However, bald eagles have varied diets that include consuming carrion, while ospreys feed almost exclusively on fish.

For More Information:

The Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agents in UF/IFAS Extension’s Southwest district created a series of wildlife themed webinars to discuss basic biology, identification, and conservation recommendations. Several of these webinars discuss bird identification and you can watch past webinars here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLMHbwAhD6pLea-Z1kyYDta1ifvKUy1aJi

To learn how to use the App, Merlin Bird ID for bird identification on-the-go, check out this blog post: Using the Merlin Bird ID App to Identify Common Birds On-The-Go

For even more information on the species discussed in this post, see our list of resources below:

If you enjoyed this series and would like to read more about commonly confused plants and animals in Florida, you can find more here: 
http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/global/tag/commonly-confused/

 

Photo Attribution:
  • Black Vulture, standing on sand: By Mdf [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/).
  • Turkey Vulture perched on a fence post: By Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/).
  • Black Vulture in Flight: By Amado Demesa from DF, México (Zopilote Común, Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/).
  • Turkey Vulture in Flight: By NM Remote [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/).
  • Double-Crested Cormorant close up: By Mdf [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/).
  • Anhinga close up: By Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/).
  • Red-Bellied Woodpecker: By Manjithkaini [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/)
  • Red-Headed Woodpecker: By The Lilac Breasted Roller [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/)
  • Osprey in flight: By Hagen von Eitzen [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/)
  • Bald Eagle in flight: By Mandcrobertson [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons. Photo added to compilation by Shannon Carnevale (http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/polk/natural-resources-and-conservation/)

 

This blog post was written by Natural Resources Extension Program Intern, Paxton Evans, under the supervision of Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agents, Shannon Carnevale and Lara Milligan.

5 Comments on “Commonly Confused Birds in Central Florida

  1. Thanks so much.
    Very informative. I always thought what I was seeing were anhingas, but everyone I chatted with told me they were cormorants. Now I will focus more on the beak to make sure. Thanks again!

  2. Excellent! Just got back from my first visit to Circle B Ranch where we saw at least six of the eight birds described here. My daughter, a sophomore at FL Southern College, insisted that cormorants and anhingas were different birds while I always thought they were the same. She was correct.
    The only bird we did not see was the red-headed woodpecker. We saw vultures, but unsure of which ones (or both); now I will be able to tell. Thanks.

  3. Good Day, Looking for name of med. large raptor in Seminole co.Fl. Bird is 70% black,smooth feathers, 30% white on breast, no crest on head. have seen many times near Econ. river on Snowhill Rd. ( little Big Econ River State Park ) Also have watched bird hunting in pastures near river low lands. Thank You, John Watts

    • Hi John,
      Thanks for the comment. If it is not one of the birds shown here in the blog post, I recommend that you try the online-bird ID tool, Merlin Bird ID. This Bird ID tool was created by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and is highly regarded as one of the best bird ID tools for the general citizen or for travellers in unfamiliar ecosystems. You can find it here: https://merlinweb.allaboutbirds.org/home
      If you are able to get a photo of the bird in question I’m happy to take a look and identify it, if possible.

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