Bird of the Month: Surfbird

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Surfbird)

PC: Mick Thompson (Surfbird)

Aphriza virgate

Length 10 in

Wingspan 26 in

Weight 7 oz

AOU Band code SURF

The Surfbird (SURF) is about 10” long with a wingspan of 26” and weight of 7 oz. (190 g). The genus name Aphriza (ah-FREE-zah) is from the Greek, aphros, froth, sea foam, meaning “to live in sea foam”.

The species name, virgata, is from Latin for twiggy, made of twigs, and streaked, in allusion to heavily streaked back and breast in summer plumage. The name Surfbird is given because it feeds at the surf line when on the coast, without minding the flying spray.

The Surfbird spends the winter, as well as during migration, on West coast rocky coastlines pounded by the surf, often scrambling over rocks just above the reach of the waves. In summer, it breeds on barren, rocky tundra above treeline high in the mountains of Alaska and the Yukon Territory. The actual nesting grounds were not discovered until the 1920s. The wintering range is from southeastern Alaska to southern Chile. In Washington, the Surfbird is a fairly common but local migrant, winter resident on rocky saltwater shorelines. Some favorite sites include the West Seattle shoreline, Penn Cove, Fort Flagler, Ediz Hook, Neah Bay and jetties at Ocean Shores and Westport.

The Surfbird’s short blunt-tipped bill (very much plover-like) and short yellow legs are distinctive in all plumages. In summer the head and neck are evenly streaked with gray; breast and sides marked with chevrons; reddish-brown patches on sides of back. In winter the bird is gray overall except for a white belly with dark spots. When in flight the white tail has a broad black band at tip, and the white stripes on the wings are distinctive.

In summer on the tundra they feed mostly on insects, spiders, snails and a few seeds. On the Pacific coast where it spends most of the year its major feeding method involves removing barnacles, limpets, and young mussels from rocks with a quick sideways jerk of the head. The Surfbird’s bill is adapted for this behavior.

It nests in mountain rocks or rocky shores above timberline with nest a natural depression lined with dead leaves and lichens on a dry, open ridge. To protect the nest, it will fly up at the face of intruders such as caribou. There are four buff-colored eggs, spotted with dark reddish brown marks. The downy young leave the nest soon after hatching and both parents tend the young. The chicks find all their own food. The incubation period, development of the chicks and age at first flight are not well known.