Impossibly elusive and immensely secretive, the Surfbird is found in some of the most remote areas in the world. Not only do they inhabit some of the most remote coasts in the world, but they also blend in with their surroundings due to their grayish plumages. They are marine birds of the purest form and winter along the Pacific coast of North America, ranging from northern Canada to southern Mexico.

About Surfbirds

These birds have hardened themselves to the cold climates of the high arctic regions. They are furrier and thicker than other birds and maintain one mate that can remain with them for many years. Since their breeding is restricted to such an inaccessible place, a large body of information about their movements, subspecies, and taxonomy exists. However, this large body of information comes with a disadvantage, as gathering information about their reproductive habits is extremely difficult to do. As a result, information on many of their behavioral trends and patterns is unknown.

Today, we will be going over the often overlooked Surfbirds. Although there is very little information available on them, we will be discussing what is known to try and piece together a more holistic idea of them.

● Surfbird Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Surfbird Size, Eating Behavior, Habitat
● Surfbird Range and Migration, Nesting


Surfbird Color Pattern

Surfbirds have certain differences between their breeding and nonbreeding plumages. In their breeding plumage, they have a black bill with a yellowish or horn-colored base, along with olive to dull yellow-gray legs. Their crown is brownish-black in the center and is edged with cinnamon to buff. The Surfbird’s head is grayish, and males generally have lighter colored sides of the head and neck during these warmer months.

Their back, scapulars, and tertials are also blackish-brown and fringed with pale buff to cinnamon rugous. The rump and upper tail coverts are dusky slate and have gray tips. While the central pair of tail feathers are black and the outer tail feathers are brownish-gray with white fringes. The upper wing is a dark brownish gray with strong white stripes formed by white on bases of secondaries, tips of greater wing coverts, and bases of inner primaries. Their chin is white, and their upper breast is washed with buff and streaked. The lower breast is large and diffused with a brownish-black patch. The belly and the flanks are white.

Their non-breeding plumage is far more inconspicuous, with gray upperparts and white underparts. The Surfbird’s wings, rump, upper tail coverts, and lower upperparts are darker than the rest of the body. Their head, neck, and breast are light or pale gray, with darker shades of gray on the crown. The breast is white and is marked with irregular gray markings. The black bill has a distinct yellow base, while their legs are a bright yellow. Juveniles resemble breeding adults but have their flight feathers broadly edged with pale buff, giving them a scaly appearance. Their upper breast is also light and drab, while their lower breast is buff; their throat and belly are white.

Description and Identification

The easiest way to identify these birds is by identifying their plumages correctly during the breeding seasons. Their unassuming plumages during the winter aid in camouflaging them with their rocky surroundings, but they have heavily contrasting colors all over their bodies that give them away.

Surfbird Song

Surfbirds have a fairly diverse vocal range, with studies showing that there are eight main types of vocalization. Their basic call is a brief and abrupt grating or squeaking “chrreet, cheet, or cheerrrt”. Their songs also incorporate these basic sounds with the addition of other rapidly repeated units, with each section of the song presented in a pair of units. These can be phonetically best rendered as “per-derrrr, per derrrr” or as a “beri beri” and “rita rita”. These songs are given out by adults when they are near the nest and are often harsh and scratchy, characterized by broad sounds.

They have a rhythmically repeated call that can be best rendered as “prre, prre, prre”. It has a pulsed structure and buzzy quality to it and is generally given in bouts. They may also bleat like a goat, with the best transliteration of that call being “vet vet vet”. This is often heard in response to human presence near the chicks. The cricket call has been compared to the sound of tree frogs and crickets, a sound that is best rendered as pre. The context for this call is unfortunately not known.

They also have a purring trill that comprises of rapid repletion of similar elements, with each element resembling an inverted V. Other calls include clucks, a series of structurally variable clicks and pops, within which the calls are similar, and squeals. High-frequency noises are rich in broad-band noises. Trilled rattles are also given out by females during courtship just before she lays eggs, while territorial males on breeding grounds utter a long trill that sounds like “rrrrrrrr”. Both sexes twitter frequently when feeding, roosting, and flying.

Surfbird Size

Surfbirds are stout and small shorebirds that have a body length of 7.1–9.4 inches and an approximate weight of 2–4.6 ounces. They have a medium-length bill that droops slightly at the end, along with short, yellow legs.

Surfbird Behavior

These birds usually walk on the ground while foraging, walking on intertidal or terrestrial substrates, or on the steep surface of rocks. They may also run while pursuing prey, chasing other birds, or avoiding waves or attacks from other birds. They also roost on one leg but will hop away using both legs if disturbed. Their flight, much like other shorebirds, is swift and coordinated. They are also good swimmers, occasionally swimming across small bodies of water while foraging or to other portions of their roost. They may also swim to avoid predators.

Breeding males can get highly territorial and make active efforts to ward off intruding males from their breeding territories. These interactions between the defending male and the intruding one can last for many hours at a stretch. They generally engage in fencing and fighting, with the birds flailing their bills and feet towards the rival while hovering less than 4 feet above the ground. One bird may even jump on the back of the other while grasping their
head or back feathers.

These birds are considered to be monogamous, but there is no firm evidence to prove that assumption as of yet. Their pair bonds are established through two classes of courtship displays: ground displays and flight displays. Flight displays are probably done to attract mates, while ground displays must be to cement the affections of any interested female that happens to observe the flight display.

Surfbird Diet

Like other Sandpipers, these birds are mostly insectivores that feed on insects and other invertebrates. Although insects make up a majority of their diet, they also consume crustaceans, mollusks, marine worms, and other aquatic invertebrates. They also feed on some plant material, including berries, seeds, moss, and algae. During migration and winter, their diet is usually only focused on small mollusks, crustaceans, and insects. Further details about their diet are unknown, but it is likely within the same category of food items.

Surfbird Habitat

These birds are found nesting on mossy tundra, with the winter seasons taking them towards rocky shores or rock jetties. They generally forage in the zones that are below the high tide mark, especially on mats of algae or among mussels or barnacles. They breed on the tundra, generally opting to place their nests on drier and more barren stretches with a sparse cover of lichen, moss, and grasses. Their wintering grounds are a lot more diverse, with these birds inhabiting the entire ecological range that is present along the Pacific coasts of North America.

Range and Migration

These birds breed on the western coasts of Alaska, with some of their range extending to the Aleutian Islands as well. These birds migrate south along rocky ice-free Pacific coasts during the winter, where the subspecies often leapfrog each other for winter, meaning that birds that breed further up north pass up the birds that breed in the southern regions of their range. Their migratory routes can take them to places as far as the southern Pacific coasts.

Surfbird Lifecycle

The number of broods these birds have in a single season is unknown, but it is most likely just one. Each brood has about 4 olives to buff eggs, with both sexes incubating the eggs for about 20 days. Sometimes, only one parent incubates. If the nest is threatened by a predator, they perform the broken wing act and try to lure the predator away. The eggs hatch eventually, and the downy young emerge full of energy. They leave the nest within a few hours of hatching and are able to find all their own food, though the males continue to stick around and tend to them for at least 2 weeks. These birds learn to fly for the first time at the tender age of 3 weeks, after which they become fully independent.


Males defend their territory by flying over it in a wide circle. As they do this, they take fluttering wingbeats and give out trilled calls. The nest site is most likely selected by the females, and it is on the ground on open, dry tundra that is sometimes in a raised area of vegetation like lichens or mosses. The nest itself is a deep scrape that is then lined with
lichens, leaves, grasses, and other soft materials to add sufficient insulation to the interiors of the nest.

Anatomy of a Surfbird

Surfbirds are stout and small shorebirds that have a body length of 7.1–9.4 inches and an approximate weight of 2–4.6 ounces. They have a medium-length bill that droops slightly at the end, along with short, yellow legs.

Final Thoughts

There is little information on Surfbird population trends and numbers. A 2012 study noted that no new population estimates had been made since 2006; at that time the total continental breeding population was estimated around 145,000 birds. At least one subspecies in the Bering Sea may be in decline, but it is unclear if it is these Sandpipers.
Surfbirds are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, leading most state authorities to classify them as a species of least concern.

Surfbirds are most likely one of the least understood birds in North America. Multiple visual observations of them have created a base for certain aspects of their life, such as their appearances and their migratory routes. However, their social behaviors and contexts are still largely understudied, giving birders a very vague idea of what their social relationships might be like. However, to understand them better, we need to understand the variety of manmade factors that harm their numbers. Without knowing where we stand, we have no way of moving forward with our journey of understanding them better.


Bird Watching Academy & Camp Subscription Boxes

At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for IdentifyingSurfbirds

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Surfbirds are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Surfbird Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Surfbird. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders ForSurfbirds

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird Houses ForSurfbirds

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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