Photo: Arthur Morris/Vireo

Surfbird

Calidris virgata

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.
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.
Photo Gallery
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.


Eggs

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.


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.

Diet

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.


Nesting

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

Migration

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.

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Migration

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
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 could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Sandpipers Sandpiper-like Birds

Surfbird

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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