7 Baby Waterbirds to Make You Squeal

Photographer William Burt zooms in on chicks, and they stare right back.

William Burt wasn't a typical teen: He spent a lot of his time tailing after super-secretive marsh birds. He wanted to understand them and photograph them—and the waterbirds were just the start of an obsession with elusive species, such as rails, bitterns, nightjars, and Henslow's Sparrows. 

Burt is now all grown up, but his latest book focuses on the very beginning. In Water Babies: The Hidden Lives of Baby Wetland Birds, Burt went back to aquatic avians. He scoured North America for Lesser Scaup, Whimbrels, Franklin's Gulls, Red-necked Grebes, and more, and then got close with some baby birds. Photographing camera-shy hatchlings in the middle of muck is challenging—to get his shots, Burt built a portable flash that he could mount on his shoulders while he floated around in a blind made of foam, aluminum, and fabric. It was a labor of love for the photographer and naturalist, whose book reflects on the joys of watching and snapping chicks (always from a respectful distance).

Take a look at some of Burt's most a-dork-able models.

Dry Run (above)

This baby Eared Grebe isn't ready to get wet yet. It'll hitch a ride on its parent until it's told (or forced) to take the plunge.

Measuring Up

With their 7-inch stems, adult Black-necked Stilts can easily wade through the muck. This little guy's just waiting on his growth spurt. 

Awkward Proportions

Unfortunately Purple Gallinules never do quite grow into their feet


Burt snapped this trio of Great Egrets just as a Cattle Egret was swiping a piece of their nest. When they're old enough, they'll return the favor by stealing the smaller bird's snacks.

Only Child Syndrome

Northern Gannets only raise one chick a year, so they're able to spoil it silly. 

Definitely a Dinosaur

Enjoy that full head of feathers while it lasts, baby Wood Stork. Once these fuzzy tots grow up, they go bald all the way down to their shoulders, further revealing the old man within.

* * *

In the introduction for Water Babies, Burt explains why he chose to devote his lens to wetland chicks:

"From the comic-monster herons to the fuzzy ducklings and stick-legged sandpipers, these tots have personality—and spunk. They cannot know it, happily, but the chances are as good as not that in their first two weeks they will be snatched away and fed in pieces to some other mother's young; yet from the moment they can stand and walk or swim they know exactly what they are supposed to do, and they get on with it. They buzz or bob along with all the purpose in the world, as if there was a life to live. A future.

Looking back at all these water-loving birds I've photographed, I'm struck by the variety of wetlands they inhabit. From the scruffy pool-strewn arctic tundra to the lush green sloughs and potholes of Saskatchewan and North Dakota, and from the open shores, sturdy cattail marshes, and soft spartina meadows of the mid-Atlantic seaboard to the jungly swamps, lagoons, and mangrove keys of Florida, Louisiana, and the Gulf . . . the range is nearly endless.

The birds themselves, as well: what a fantastical array they are, adults and young alike. Web-footed ducks and lobe-toed coots, and grebes, and phalaropes: stilt-legged herons, storks, and ibises, and shorebirds with bills long and short, bills recurved and decurved and straight as a railroad spike; the gulls that sail and terns that plunge-dive, rainbow-colored gallinules that strut on lily pads, and bitterns that stretch upright like the reeds: They vary so much in equipment and how they use it that you might suppose their paths would never cross. But in the wetlands they all come together, live, and raise their young, all drawn by our essential need: water.

Without the water—and the wetlands—these birds wouldn't be."


Excerpted from Water Babies: The Hidden Lives of Baby Wetland Birds, by William Burt, Countryman Press, 208 pages, $20.45. Preorder it at Amazon. Used with the permission of the publisher, Countryman Press.​ Published October 2015. Copyright © 2015 by William Burt. All rights reserved. 



An earlier version of this article contained a photo of Black-crowned Night-Herons by William Burt