At a Glance
Named for its winter haunts, the Surfbird spends the winter (as well as migration seasons) on rocky coastlines pounded by the surf, often clambering about the rocks barely above the reach of the waves. But this stocky little sandpiper leads a double life, abandoning the coast in late spring. Its nesting grounds, high in the mountains in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, were not discovered until the 1920s.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Sandpiper-like Birds, Sandpipers
Coasts and Shorelines, High Mountains, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Northwest, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Rapid Wingbeats, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Considering the limited size of the breeding range, wintering range is remarkably stretched-out, from southeastern Alaska to southern Chile. Some can be found on wintering range at least from late July to early May. On our southern Pacific Coast, the only noticeable peak in migrant numbers occurs in spring, mainly in April.
10" (25 cm). Stout, short-necked. In winter, mostly dusky gray with white belly, dark spots along sides. Bill shape is best clue. Breeding plumage has black spots below, rusty above. In flight, shows white tail with black tip.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Robin
Black, Gray, Orange, White, Yellow
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped, Wedge-shaped
Songs and Calls
A shrill kee-wee in flight.
Buzz, Scream, Whistle
Rocky coasts; nests on mountain tundra. During migration and winter, mostly on rocky outer coasts and islands, also on stone jetties and breakwaters. Sometimes on sandy beaches or mudflats, especially during brief stops on migration. In summer, breeds on rather barren, rocky tundra above treeline in northern mountains.
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4. Buff, spotted with dark reddish-brown. Incubation is by both sexes, incubation period not well known. Young: Downy young leave nest soon after hatching. Both parents tend young, but young find all their own food. Development of the chicks and age at first flight not well known.
Downy young leave nest soon after hatching. Both parents tend young, but young find all their own food. Development of the chicks and age at first flight not well known.
Major feeding method on coast involves removing barnacles, limpets, and young mussels from rocks with a quick sideways jerk of the head; the Surfbird's thick bill is adapted for this behavior. Also picks up snails and insects from ground or rocks, sometimes probes in mud.
Mostly insects, mollusks, barnacles. In summer on tundra, feeds mostly on insects; also spiders, snails, a few seeds. On coast (where it spends most of year), feeds on mollusks, such as mussels, limpets, and snails, as well as barnacles and other crustaceans, and other small invertebrates.
Breeding behavior is not well known. In display over nesting territory, male makes long flight, fluttering wings through shallow arc, then gliding while giving repeated calls or harsh song. Nest site is on ground, in natural depression in rocky surface of high, dry ridge, in area surrounded by very low ground cover. Nest (probably built by both sexes) is simple lining of dead leaves, lichens, and moss added to nest depression.
Generally an uncommon bird, but numbers probably stable.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Surfbird. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Surfbird
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.