In Alaska, sea ducks winter in coastal habitats at remote, non-industrialized areas, as well as in proximity to human communities and industrial activity. We evaluated prevalence and characteristics of Escherichia coli strains in faecal samples of Steller's eiders (Polysticta stelleri; n = 122) and harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus; n = 21) at an industrialized site and Steller's eiders (n = 48) at a reference site, and compared these strains with those isolated from water samples from near-shore habitats of ducks. The overall prevalence of E. coli was 16% and 67% in Steller's eiders and harlequin ducks, respectively, at the industrialized study site, and 2% in Steller's eiders at the reference site. Based on O and H antigen subtyping and genetic characterization by enterobacterial repetitive intergenic consensus polymerase chain reaction and pulsed-field gel electrophoresis, we found evidence of avian pathogenic E. coli (APEC) strains associated with both species and detected E. coli strains carrying virulence genes associated with mammals in harlequin ducks. Steller's eiders that carried APEC had lower serum total protein and albumin concentrations, providing further evidence of pathogenicity. The genetic profile of two E. coli strains from water matched an isolate from a Steller's eider providing evidence of transmission between near-shore habitats and birds.