For a species with a breeding range confined to parts of Alaska and western Canada, the Surfbird has a remarkably elongated winter range along the west coast from Alaska to Central America. Movements take place in flocks, and Surfbirds are often seen with turnstones during migration and winter.
For a species that spends much of its life along the coast, it may seem unusual that there are no reports of it swimming. Roosting takes place during the winter on rocks high enough to avoid splashing from wave action.
Description of the Surfbird
The Surfbird is a chunky shorebird with yellowish legs, a black-tipped bill with a pale base, and a white eye ring.
– White head and underparts heavily marked with black.
– Rufous scapulars.
Seasonal change in appearance
Winter birds have dark gray/brown upperparts, head, and breast.
Juveniles resemble breeding adults but lack reddish scapulars.
Tundra and rocky coastlines.
Insects and mollusks.
Forages by walking over rocks or probing with its bill.
Breeds in Alaska and western Canada and winters along the Pacific Coast.
Many basic questions about the Surfbird’s breeding ecology remain unanswered.
Harsh or laughing calls are given on the breeding grounds.
- Rock Sandpipers have longer bills.
The nest is a depression on the ground.
Color: Buff with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
– Young hatch at 22-24 days.
– Young fledge (leave the nest) shortly after hatching.
Bent Life History of the Surfbird
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Surfbird – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
APHRIZA VIRGATA (Gmelin)
From its summer home in the mountains of central Alaska the surf bird migrates down the Pacific coasts of North and South America as far as the Straits of Magellan. Twice each year some individuals make this long journey, while others are scattered along the coasts from southern Alaska southward. Consequently it may be found, chiefly on migrations but occasionally at other seasons, by those who seek it on the outlying rocky ledges, reefs, and promontories all along the Pacific coast. As its name implies, it is a bird of the surf line, associated in its rocky habitat with turnstones and wandering tattlers, unmindful of the flying spray. It well deserves its generic name, which is taken from two Greek words, aphros, meaning sea foam, and zao, I live.
Spring: The spring migration is directly north along the coasts of both continents. It is difficult to trace the dates, as the winter range is so extensive. The latest recorded date for the Straits of Magellan is March 3; and the earliest date of arrival at the Kobuk River, Alaska, is May 29. The main flight along the California coast seems to come in March. Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1909) reports a flight at Admiralty Island, Alaska, on May 12, “a flock estimated to contain 300 waders, fully two-thirds of which were of thi~ species.~~ Harry S. Swarth (1911) says that, at Kuiu Island, Alaska, between April 25 and May 6,” it was abundant and in large flocks, feeding in company with the numerous other waders frequenting the mud flats.” H. B. Conover saw it only once at looper Bay, Alaska, on May 18.
Nesting: The breeding grounds and the nesting habits of the surf bird long remained unknown. The birds vanished from the coast of Alaska about the first of June and were not seen again for six weeks or more, when they appeared again with their young. Rumors suggested that they bred in the mountains in the interior. 0. J. Murie (1924) gave us the first definite information, when he discovered the breeding ground of the species in the Mount McKinley Park region of central Alaska. On July 13, 1921, he was descending a slope above timber line, “when two surf birds were flushed and circled about making an outcry.” He was “presently rewarded by seeing a downy young one striding away bravely over the rough ground.” The young bird was secured and one of the parents, which proved to be the male, thus establishing the first breeding record for the species.
Five years later Joseph Dixon (1927) spent considerable time in this same region and succeeded in finding, on May 28, 1926, the first nest of the surf bird. He took some excellent photographs and made a thorough study of the bird and its habits, thus completing the picture very satisfactorily. I shall quote freely from his excellent published account of it. Regarding the nesting site and the nest he writes:
One of the most striking things about the surf bird Is the remarkable difference between its winter and summer habitat. Near the end of their northward migration in the spring these birds abandon the seacoast and take up their summer residence far in the interior, from 300 to 500 miles from salt water. This involves a great nititudinal shift. Instead of living at sea level as they do at other seasons, during nesting time they are to be found on barren, rocky mountains high up above timber line. During the entire summer we never found these birds below 4,000 feet elevation. The rocky character of the surf birds’ surroundings appears to remain fairly constant throughout the year. In summer the birds are to be found most frequently near the summits of the rock slides where the broken rocks are much the same as the rugged reefs they inhabit during the winter. We found in the Mount McKinley district that the summer range of the surf bird was almost identical with that of the mountain sheep and that it was useless to look for surf birds outside of “sheep” country.
When standing on a barren wind-swept ridge late in the afternoon of May 28, searching a nearby hillside with binoculars, Mr. Wright’s attention was attracted to a grayish bird that xvas sneaking hurriedly along over the rocky ground. As he watched, the bird upparently faded out of sight some 600 feet away. Marking the point of disappearance he hurried over to the spot where the bird was last seen and, failing to find the bird, began to think he was mistaken. But, upon his taking one more step, the bird flew up suddenly right into his face, startling him mightily. As the bird flew away, ihe large white rump patch, together with a white patch on either wing, brought realization that this was the long-sought-for surf bird. A hasty glance at his feet revealed the nest and contents of four eggs. Another step forward and he would have placed his foot directly in the nest! To George M. Wright belongs the honor of being the first white man, of which we have any record, to lay eyes on the nest and eggs of this rare bird.
The surf bird’s nest was located 1,000 feet above timber line on a rocky ridge that faced southwest and lay fair to the sun and hence was relatively free from snow. The nest site was on dry rocky ground and not on the wet tundra which was plentiful nearby. The rocky ground about the nest was clothed with a thin carpet of alpine-arctic vegetation, the tallest of which were a few creeping arctic willows less than 2 Inches high. The most conspicuous plant about the nest was the white-flowered Dr-yes intcgrffotia. The nest was entirely out in the open with no bushes that afford the least concealment. In fact It was almost “out in the street,” since the eggs wsre within a foot of a frequently traveled trail of the white Alaska mountain sheep (OiAs dGUi). There was no fabricated nest such as the wandering tattler makes. Instead, the eggs were deposited in a natural erosional depression, the sides of which had been lined with a few bits of dried-up grayish-green lichens and caribou moss. The bottom of the nest was composed of tire dead emarginate leaves of Drlja-. tnteDrifoUa, which only partially covered the crumbling serpentine outcrop that formed the backbone of the ridge. The nest, which was barely large enough to bold the four eggs, which were placed as close together as possible, with little ends down, measured 4 inches in diameter and an inch and a half in depth. The eggs In the nest blended so well with the reddish brown moss of the tundra that it became difficult to make them Out at a distance of more than 8 or 10 feeL
The nest was found at nearly 9 o’clock in the evening. They built a crude shelter of rocks near it and kept a careful watch over it all that night and half of the next day. During this time Mr. Dixon (1927) made these observations:
When It began to rain the surf bird merely fluffed up and then spread out the feathers on his back so as completely to cover the nest. This proved an effective method, because the melting snow and the rain ran readily off the surfbird’s back and was absorbed by the moss outside the nest. We were not so well protected and were soon shivering and wet to the skin,
At 4 o’clock a female mountain sheep appeared, silently, like a ghost, out of the mist that came drifting over the mountain peaks in great white swirls. She did not see us at first, but when she was within 6 feet of and headed directly toward the surf-bird’s nest she became suddenly aware of our rresence and took a step o~ two forward. When the ewe was about to step on the nest the surf bird suddenly “exploded” right in the astonished animal’s face. This unexpected movement and the sudden noise and flash of white of the bird’s spread wings and tail caused the mountain sheep to jump hack quickly then she whirled around and bounded off back up the trail. This sudden movement of the surf bird at the critical moment doubtless serves to prevent sheep and caribou from trampling upon its nest and eggs. We found through repeated experiments that this was the bird’s regular reaction. When we approached, whether fast or slow, the bird would stay on the nest until the last minute, and then, instead of sneaking off low to the ground like most birds do, would fly directly up into our faces. Even after we knew that the bird would do this the psychological result on our part was the same. A person would Involuntarily recoil when the bird ” expJoded” like a firecracker right in his face.
When first frightened off the nest by Mr. Wright the previous afternoon the bird, which we later thought might have been the female, after “exploding,” ran away with wings half spread and the tail spread out fanlike and dragging on the ground. This displayed conspicuously the white rump patch. Now and then this bird would nestle down as though covering a nest. When about 100 yards distant from the nest the bird began to wander about, pretending to feed. It exhibited no concern whatever when Mr. Wright returned to the nest and examined the eggs. It made no attompt to return to the nest even after the observer had retired to a distance and waited for a period of 10 minutes, during which interval rain began to fall.
In marked contrast with this rather Indifferent attitude, the bird which was watched on the nest for 16 hours, behaved in an entirely different manner. This second bird, when forced off the nest, would fly directly up Into the intruder’s face, and then run off to one side, a distance of 8 or 10 feet, where it would perch on a rock, fluff out its feathers like a “sitting” hen and utter a low plaintive call, fec-tee-tact I The call would often be repeated two or three times after a slight pause of half a minute between calls. When we started after this bird it would lead us adroitly away from the nest; but If we stood still It would soon hustle directly back, even when we were standing only 10 feet distant. In going on to the nest the bird was very careful not to step directly upon the eggs. It would trot up to within a foot or so of the eggs and then sneak cautiously down to the edge of the nest. Here it would stop, Inspect the eggs, and reach out with its bill and turn the eggs about, keeping them little ends down. Following this inspection the bird fluffed out the feathers on its breast and sitting down gently on the edge of the nest, slid its body forward with great care, until the eggs were completely covered.
Eggs: I have not yet seen these eggs, so T will quote Mr. Dixon’s (1927) excellent description of them:
The eggs of the surf bird are not easily confused with the eggs of any other North American sandpiper or plover. In shape they are pyriform hut, though similar in form to eggs of other birds of the order Limicolae, in color they appear more like eggs of the falcons, particularly certain eggs of the sparrow hawk and prairie falcon.
In the type set, which Is now safely housed in the well-known Thayer collection, there is considerable variation both in the ground color and in the markings of the eggs. Three eggs of this set have an intensely huffy ground color, while the fourth egg is of the same color but decidedly lighter. The markings on the three eggs are bold, varying in color from fawn to bay. The markings on the fourth egg are small and evenly distributed. The four eggs may he described as follows: The first egg has a light ground color which equals tilleul-buff. In this egg the marking consists of fine splashes, one-half to two millimeters in length. There is but slight tendency for the markings to form a wreath on the larger end. A few small dark brown spots on its larger end identifies this egg, which resembles slightly certain eggs of the yellow-hilled magpie. In egg number two the ground color is rich tilleulbuff, while the markings consist of bold bay-colored spots and splashes from one-half to three millimeters in length. These spots are concentrated about the larger end of the egg, where in places they are so dense as completely to obscure the ground color. A few deep-seated lavender under-shell markings are apparent on this egg. Egg number three is similar both in ground color and in markings to egg number two, except in egg number three the heavy bay markings form a decided wreath 21 millimeters in diameter about its larger end. Egg number four has the richest ground color of all, while its markings are fawn, but the markings are not so sharply defined as In the other eggs.
The four eggs measure 43.7 by 30.5, 41.5 by 31.5, 43.3 by 31.2, and 42.4 by 31, and they average 42.7 by 31 millimeters.
Young: Mr. Dixon (1927) demonstrated most conclusively that the male does most, if not all, of the incubating. The bird that they had under observation for 16 hours and the only one seen near the nest proved to be the male. All of the five males collected had bare incubation patches, while none of the females had these. Mr. Murie (1924) found both parents attending the young bird which he captured; and the one shot, probably the more solicitous one, was the male. Evidence is accumulating all the time to show that with more shore birds than we realize, perhaps with all, the males perform the greater part of the domestic duties.
Plumages: The young bird taken by Mr. Murie is still in the downy stage. The upper parts are variegated and mottled with “cinnamon buff,” brownish black, “sepia,” and buify white; the forehead and sides of the head are buffy white, boldly spotted and striped with black; the crown is mainly spotted with black; the buffy tints are mainly on the upper back, wings, thighs, and rump; t he under parts are grayish white, whitest on the chin and belly. When the young birds come down to the coast of Alaska, in August, they are in full juvenal plumage. In this the crown is streaked with “fuscous” and brownish black, the feathers having white edgings; the chin and throat are white, with shaft streaks of “hair brown”; there is a broad band of “hair brown” across the breast, with white edgings, running into spots below, which are lacking on the white belly; the mantle is “hair brown,” with very narrow whitish edgings, giving a scaled appearance; the scapulars also have a subterminal “fuscous” bar; the lesser and median wing coverts are broadly or conspicuously edged with grayish white.
A partial postjuvenal molt in the early fall produces a first winter plumage which is like the adult winter, except that there are fewer and smaller spots on the under parts; and the juvenal wing coverts and some scapulars are retained.
Two specimens, collected in Peru on June 30, illustrate the first nuptial plumage. These are doubtless birds which do not migrate north to breed during their first year. Apparently a nearly complete mojt has taken place, as the wings and tail appear fresh, but some of the old scapulars and wing coverts are retained. The adult nuptial plumage is suggested, but all traces of cinnamon are lacking; the feathers of the mantle are ” fuscous ” or ” hair brown,” broadly edged with grayish white and subterminally bordered with brownish black; the crown is grayish white, streaked with dusky; the scapulars are “fuscous” to brownish black, broadly tipped, notched, or spotted with pale grayish; the breast and flanks are less heavily marked than in the adult. I have not seen this plumage described elsewhere. At the next molt the adult winter plumage is assumed.
Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in August; I have seen one with primaries and secondaries molting as early as August 27. in adult winter plumage the upper parts are uniform “fuscous,” with only slightly Jighter (” hair brown “) edgings; the chin and throat are white, spotted with “hair brown “; there is a broad band of “hair brown” across the chest and below it the under parts are marked on the breast and flanks with hastate spots of ” fuscous.”
A partial prenuptial molt of the body plumage takes place in April and May, but some of the old winter feathers are generally retained. In full nuptial plumage the head and neck are grayish white, everywhere boldly streaked, or spotted, with black and slightly suffused on the croxyn with ” pinkish cinnamon “; the feathers of the back are centrally black, broadly edged with white and tinged with “pinkish cinnamon”; but the most striking features of this plumage are the scapulars, boldly patterned with “pinkish cinnamon ” and black, with narrow whitish tips; the white under parts are boldly marked, especially on the breast and flanks, with bastate, subeordate, or crescentic spots of brownish black. The cinnamon colors fade during the breeding season to pale buff and eventually rn white in July birds.
Food: On its breeding grounds in summer the surf bird feeds almost entirely on insects, mainly flies and beetles. The analysis of the stomach contents of eight birds, taken in Alaska and examined by the Biological Survey, shows the following proportions: Diptera, 55.2 per cent; Coleoptera, 36 per cent; Lepidoptera, 3.8 per cent; Hymenoptera, 3.3 per cent; Phalangiden, 1 per cent; snails, 5 per cent; and seeds, 2 per cent. Mr. Dixon (1927) says of its feeding habits:
Three days later seven surf birds were found feeding in company at midday near this same spot. This time they were foraging near the top of a very steep talus slope that lay fair to the sari. Only a few scant flowers grew amid the rocks, but insects were numerous and active. One surf bird which, when inter collected, proved to be a male stood guard while the others fed. The slightest movement on my part was sufficient to cause a warning note to be given by this sentinel. When feeding, these birds ran hurriedly over the rocks, traveling as fast or faster than a man could walk. When an insect was sighted the pursuing surf bird would stretch out its neck as far and as straight as possible. Then moving stealthily forward the bird would make a final thrust and secure the insect in its bill, much In the same manner that a turkey stalks a grasshopper.
At other seasons the surf bird feeds along the water line on ocean beaches, preferring the rocky or stony shores, or reefs exposed at low tide; here it extracts the soft parts of barnacles, mussels, or other crustaceans and small mollusks, or picks up other minute forms of marine life. It also feeds to some extent at the surf line on sandy beaches or on mud flats, where it picks up similar food from the surface without probing for it. At such times the birds are quite pugnacious unless sufficiently scattered.
Behavior: Mr. Dixon (1927) writes:
On June 18 three surf birds were seen close under the summit of a mountain. Here they occasionally ran about and picked up insects, but more often they stood still on exposed rocks and preened their feathers. One of these three birds frequently raised both wings willet fashion over its back until they almost met. These individuals were exceedingly shy and would not allow the naturalist to approach closer than 100 yards. We found that this timidity was customary during the nesting season, when the birds were encountered away from the Immediate vicinity of the nest.
At 8 o’clock on the evening of June 24 I climbed to the crest of a sharp ridge of one of the lower spurs of the main Alaskan Range. As I reached the highest peak four surf birds flew In from a distance. As they circled about the peak they called, tee, tee teet loudly. Their flight was swift and plover-like. As they turned the white basal portions of their tails together with the white bars of their wings formed four white V’s which stood out vividly in the strong glow of the evening sun. They circled the peak several times, calling loudly and evidently seeking for others of their kind. Soon there was an answering call from the ground and the four birds settled down on a rocky spur where three other surf birds were already feeding. When I crawled up to within 50 yards of them all seven birds ceased feeding and began to call loudly. After a period of several minutes they began to feed again, one remaining on guard while the others ran hither and thither chasing Insects over the rocks and tundra.
Florence M. Bailey (1916) says of the behavior of surf birds on the California coast:
At high tide one day two of the surf birds were standing on the sand ridge Just above the water resting from their labors, one with Its back to the Incoming waves staring ahead of It as if lost in reverie. On the beach one of the silent, solitary Aphrizos would often stand facing me, as it studying me intently, when, though I could not read Its innermost thoughts, I had a good chance to note its light forehead and eye line, its white underparts, and streaked chest. Two of the droll birds were found one day engaged In an amusing performance that suggested the sparring of boys. One turned sideways to the other as if on guard, then dropped the wing on that side and spread its tail till the white rump showed. The other In turn spread its tall and they hopped over each other, doing this a number of times. They would also dip their bills menacingly, and one of them sat down several times as part of the play. As they flew off they gave their wild key-wd-oA. When wanting to move down the beach one often flew close along under the green wall of the combing surf. When it alit its wings would be held out for an Instant showing the clear white line down their length and the broad white base of the tail with the dusky tip. When on shore they stood around so much with their preoccupied dreamy gaze that, when one took wing and flew with swift strong wing strokes out across the surf and over the ocean, a disappearing white spot, you stood bewildered. Your idle dreamer was a child of the sea! Perhaps when it stood on the sandy beach with preoccupied gaze it was dreaming of its rocky sud-dashed home to the north, or of its rocky surf-dashed winter home to the south. How well its wild, keen, plaintive key-oh: wee tells the story!
Field marks: While standing on rocks, at a distance or when the light is poor, surf birds might be mistaken for black turnstones, but they are somewhat larger. They are more stockily built and generally darker colored than other shore birds. But in flight they may be easily recognized by the broad white band in the wing, and by the white upper tail coverts and basal half of the tail; they lack the broad white patch in the center of the back and white stripes, which distinguish the turnstones.
Fall: The birds apparently leave their breeding grounds in July and move down to the coast of Alaska; some reach Oregon before the end of July and California early in August. Apparently the adults come first Young birds have been taken on the coast of southern Alaska as early as August 27 and have been noted at St. Michael up to the last of September. During the fall they move gradually down the coast, lingering for the winter at favorable places.
Winter: The surf bird winters in small numbers, occasionally if not regularly, as far north as Wrangell, Alaska. Carl Lien has sent me the following notes from the coast of Washington:
Destruction Island lies 50 miles south of Cape Fluttery and 3 out from the mainland. It is 35 acres in extent and surrounded by extensive reefs which are uncovered at low tide. There are numerous rocky ridges that are well above the water at high tide, these ridges forming little protected bays and harbors.
I first went to this island in December, 1910. On nice days when the sea was smooth it was my custom to row around the reefs observing the birds. I found the surf birds generally in company with Aleutian sandpipers and black turastones. There would be a half dozen on this reef and similar hunches on neighboring reefs. Their actions were very lively, now running to a higher point on the rock as the wash from the swell came rushing up, now running down ngain as the water receded, feeding busily. The only thing I ever found in their stomachs was small mussels about an eighth of an inch long, occasionally up to a quarter of an inch. The following autumn they returned though I did not note the date. I saw them from time to time during the winter in the winters of 1912: 13, 1913: 14, 1914: 15, 1915: 16, 1916: 17. They would arrive the last week Ia October or the first week in November. The flock on its first arrival would number about 200 birds. They would begin to leave the island the 1st of April and by the 1st of May there would be none left. They did not visit the high parts of the island but confined themselves to the reefs and gravel bars. They were very wary and hard to approach on foot though they would sometimes allow a boat to come within 10 yards.
Range: Western North and South America.
Breeding range: The breeding range of the surf bird is evidently in the higher mountains of the interior of Alaska. The nest and eggs have been found on one occasion only, in the Mount McKinley district (Dixon, 1927), but Murie (1924) found young, apparently about a week old, at the headwaters of Forty-mile River. There also seems a strong probability that the species breeds in the Selawik Range on the south side of the Kowak Valley (Grinnell, 1900), and in the region around the head of the Savage River in the Alaska Range (Murie, 1924).
Sharing a trait with other shore birds, some nonbreeders frequently remain through the summer at points far south of the breeding grounds. During this period they have been noted in California (Santa Barbara and the Farallone Islands); Oregon (Newport); and Washington (Destruction Island and Camp Mora, Clallam County).
Winter range: In winter the surf bird is found on the Pacific coast both of North and South America. It has been detected south to the Straits of Magellan (Van Island in Trinity Channel), and at other points on the coast of Chile (Valdivia, Paposo, and Atacama); and Peru (Pisco Bay). At this season in North America it has been collected or observed in California (Monterey .and probably San Francisco Bay region); Oregon (Cape Meares, Cannon Beach, and the entrance to Yaquina Bay); Washington (Jefferson County and Destruction Island); and Alaska (Wrangel and Craig). These latter records would appear to indicate that some individuals are only partially migratory.
Migration: Because of the extensive areas that may be occupied by the species, particularly in winter, and in view of the scarcity of existing data, it is difficult to present an adequate picture of its migrations. The following dates may, however, throw some light on its movements.
Early dates of arrival are Lower California, San Geronimo Island, March 15; California, San Diego, March 19; Oregon, Newport, March 21; Washington, Puget Sound, March 8; and Alaska, Admiralty Island, April 17, Forrester Island, April 20, Kuiu Island, April 25, Craig, May 9, and Kobuk River, May 29.
Late dates of spring departure are Chile, Van Island, March 3; Lower California, San Geronimo Island, April 13, Turtle Bay, April 14, and Abreojos Point, April 19; California, Los Angeles, May 1, Santa Barbara, May 4, Point Pinos, May 10, and San Nicolas Island, May 15; Oregon, Newport, May 3; and Washington, Jefferson County, April 28.
Early dates of fall arrival are: Alaskan coast, Sitka, July 21, and Nushagak, August 9; British Columbia, Porcher Island, July 12, and Queen Charlotte Islands, August 2; Oregon, Newport, July 24; and California, Monterey Bay, August 3, and Point Pinos, August 5.
Late dates of fall departure are: Alaska, Craig, September 4, Sitka, September 5, and Nome, September 9; British Columbia, Comox, September 2; Oregon, Netarts Bay, November 19; and California, Berkeley, October 24.
Egg dates: Alaska: One record, May 28, 1926.