What is a Surfbird?

R. Britton

A surfbird, or Aphriza virgata, is the only member of the Aphriza genus, belonging to the larger family Scolopacidae. It is a small to medium-size wading bird bearing close resemblance to a bittern or tern. The surfbird has two geographical ranges. During the breeding season, these birds can be found in scattered locations across the mountainous, rocky terrain of Alaska and the Yukon, and during the remainder of the year, it is found along the majority of the Pacific Coast from Southern Alaska to Chile. Most commonly found in small flocks, a group of surfbirds is known as a "kahuna" or "board."

During the breeding season, surfbirds can be found in the Yukon.
During the breeding season, surfbirds can be found in the Yukon.

Outside of the breeding season, both males, females and juveniles appear very similar. They have white rumps with a distinctive black stripe. The plumage is a mottled gray, and the bird has a white stomach. During the breeding season, the adult male surfbird develops rust-colored plumage on his back.

Surfbirds bear a strong resemblance to a bittern.
Surfbirds bear a strong resemblance to a bittern.

After courtship, during which the males will vie for a female's attention with vocal and flight displays, the female creates a nest at ground level in a natural depression or will scrape a depression in her chosen nesting site. Nesting sites usually are located in rocky, rugged terrain with some natural vegetative or rocky cover. She proceeds to line the nest with vegetation before laying a clutch of as many as four eggs. Egg clutches are incubated by both breeding partners.

After chicks have gained their first fluffy, flightless feathers, they venture away from the nest to forage for food, which consists mainly of small insects and invertebrates. The chicks return to the nest after foraging, and the parents still provide some level of care, offering protection against predators and teaching the chicks to fly. The main defensive technique employed by the surfbird is to remain still and unmoving on the nest, and when the potential predator is almost on top of the nest, the bird will fly up directly in front of the threat, using a display of flapping wings and harsh vocals to surprise or frighten the predator.

When it has matured, the surfbird expands its diet. In addition to insects and small invertebrates, it also will eat crustaceans such as muscles and barnacles, which can be found close to the shore or on rocky outcroppings. Like many creatures that are reliant on the shoreline for breeding, food sources and survival, the surfbird is put at high risk by oil spills and human encroachment.

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