Editor's Note: Formerly placed in the genus Aphriza, this species has been assigned to Calidris, owing to recent analysis of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. See the 54th Supplement of the AOU Checklist for details. Future revision of this account will adjust for this change.
The Surfbird's winter range is among the longest and narrowest of any North American breeding bird. During the boreal winter, Surfbirds are found from Kodiak Island, Alaska, to the Strait of Magellan, Chile, a distance of over 17,500 km, and the winter range extends inland only a few meters above the tide line. Outside the breeding season, this species is confined almost entirely to rocky coastal shores, where it feeds on mollusks and other intertidal prey, often amid the splash and spray of incoming waves; hence its name.
The Surfbird was first described from a specimen collected from Prince William Sound on Captain Cook's voyage to Alaska in 1778. Ironically, Prince William Sound has only recently been identified as the principal spring staging area, where much of the world Surfbird population gathers in May before dispersing directly to mountain breeding sites to the west and north. Only during the short breeding season do Surfbirds occur away from the coast, and nearly a century and a half elapsed after the species was described for science before its nest and eggs were first discovered. Early reports from native Alaskans that Surfbirds nested on “bare mountains in the interior” (Nelson 1887b: 128) were dismissed, but ultimately they were proven right by Dixon (Dixon 1927b), who published evidence of the first nest in 1926 near Mt. McKinley in central Alaska.