Assessing microbial diversity requires analysis of all three domains of life, including eukaryotic microbes. We examined the diversity of two ecologically important clades of microbial eukaryotes, ciliates in the subclasses Oligotrichia and Choreotrichia (class Spirotrichea), by comparing pyrosequencing to Sanger-sequenced clone libraries and microscopy. Using samples from a large temperate estuary (Long Island Sound, USA), we gained three major insights. First, richness estimates varied by up to one order of magnitude either using different criteria for pyrosequence processing or among pyrosequencing, cloning and microscopy, while taxon identification was almost always coherent. Error-correcting algorithms for pyrosequences (‘denoising’) reduced discrepancies in richness but also removed known morphospecies from the data. Second, although most of the pyrosequenced operational taxonomic units (OTUs) were distributed within known orders and families, we found evidence of a previously uncharacterized or unknown clade even in these ciliate lineages that have a rich history of morphological description. Third, pyrosequencing allowed the detection of OTUs that were either dominant or extremely rare in different samples. Our findings confirm the potential of pyrosequencing for quantifying microbial diversity, but also highlight the importance of careful evaluation of pyrosequence processing for using this method to address ecological questions.