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Surfbird is one of the characteristic winter shorebirds of the Pacific Coast of North America, though its winter range extends along the entire Pacific Coast of South America. This species is poorly known from its remote mountain breeding grounds of Alaska and the Yukon Territory; its nest and eggs were only discovered in 1926. The threat of oil spills along this species' wintering grounds, together with increased human development along the Pacific Coast, makes Surfbird a species of high conservation concern.
Surfbird is a stocky, medium-sized shorebird with a short, stout bill and yellow legs. In breeding plumage, the species has heavy grayish-black streaks on the head and breast, with dark spots continuing the length of the bird along the flanks. The darkish upperparts of breeding birds are marked with a broad swath of prominent rufous feathers. In winter plumage, Surfbird is predominantly pale gray, with white visible on its lower belly. Surfbird's short, blunt bill, with yellow at the base, distinguishes this species from Black Turnstone, Wandering Tattler, and the other "rock-pipers" with which it can be seen along the Pacific Coast during winter.
This species has arguably the longest wintering range of any bird in the world. Outside of the breeding season, the species can be found along almost the entire Pacific Coast of the Americas, from southeastern Alaska all the way to Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile. In breeding season, Surfbird is found in mountain ranges scattered throughout Alaska and the Yukon Territory. Two Canadian Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in British Columbia provide important habitat for migrating and wintering Surfbirds: Barkley Sound IBA, where as many as 4,500 birds (more than 6% of the world population) have been seen at one time on migration; and White Islets and Wilson Creek IBA, which supports large concentrations of Surfbirds (up to 1,000 individuals) during winter and spring.
An analysis of Christmas Bird Count data from 1959 to 1988 from the Pacific Coast (south of Alaska) showed a nonsignificant decline of 1.2% per year.
During most of the year (on migration and in winter), Surfbird is found along the rocky Pacific Coast of North America. In the summer, it breeds in rocky mountain tundra above treeline. On the breeding grounds, Surfbird preys mostly upon insects, while along the coast, it feeds on mussels, limpets, snails, barnacles, and other invertebrates. Because of the remoteness of its breeding territory, breeding biology of the Surfbird is not well known. The male performs a long display flight in which he flies on fluttering wings, then glides through the air and gives calls or a harsh song. The nest is located on the ground in a rocky, natural depression, which is then lined with leaves, lichens, and moss. A clutch of four eggs is incubated by both sexes, for an unknown length of time. The downy chicks leave the nest shortly after hatching and find their food, but they still receive parental care for some time.
The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan lists Surfbird as a "Species of High Concern," based on a suspected population decline and threats on the non-breeding grounds. As with other species that are strictly tied to the rocky shores of the Pacific Coast, Surfbird is vulnerable to oil spills. The major path of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound passed within 10 to 15 kilometers of Montague Island, a major migratory stopping point for Surfbird. A month after the oil spill, Montague Island, which suffered little or no oiling along its shorelines, hosted tens of thousands of Surfbirds and Black Turnstones. Increased human development of the Pacific Coast, especially from Vancouver Island southward, could lead to increased disturbance to Surfbird roosting and feeding habitats.
The major Surfbird staging area on Montague Island, Alaska, has been nominated for inclusion in the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (http://www.manomet.org/WHSRN/Sitesmap.htm).
What Can You Do?
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the status of populations of Surfbird and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Surfbird. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for Surfbird, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
Brown, S., C. Hickey, B. Harrington, and R. Gill, eds. 2001. The U.S. Shorebird Conservation Plan, 2nd ed. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, Manomet, MA.
Hayman, P., J. Marchant, and T. Prater. Shorebirds, An Identification Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
Kaufman, Kenn. Lives of North American Birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.
Senner, S. E., and B. J. McCaffery. 1997. (Aphriza virgata). In The Birds of North America, No. 266 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.