Conservation status Generally an uncommon bird, but numbers probably stable.
Family Sandpipers
Habitat 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.
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.

Feeding Behavior

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.


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.


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.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

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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.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

Learn more

Songs and Calls

A shrill kee-wee in flight.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Surfbird

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.

Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.

Climate Threats Near You

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.