Thursday, September 1, 2011


SurfbirdSurfbird, Barview Jetty, Tillamook, Oregon, 8 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


"Rockpipers." This is an informal term birders in the Pacific Northwest use to identify several species of shorebirds (sandpiper family) that prefer rocky intertidal zones over mudflats or sand beaches.

Most gaudy is the crow-sized Black Oystercatcher with its long thick pink legs, orange eye, blood-red knife-shaped bill, and piercing cries. These birds favor the volcanic headlands and offshore rocks where they eat shellfish (clams, oysters, mussels) at low tide.

Another very sought-after rockpiper is the rare winter-visiting Rock Sandpiper, usually found on jetties, November-March.

During spring and fall migration, you may find the gray Wandering Tattlers on headlands and jetties of the NW.

Most abundant, from late August into April, are the Black Turnstones and Surfbirds. You may find these birds on the rocky substrates described above, but also add cobble beaches and wharfs to their habitats.

Rockpipers often feed right at the sea's edge, gleaning small marine invertebrates at low tide. To search for these birds, watch each incoming wave force them to fly up higher on the rocks, and then scamper back down as the wave passes.

When standing on the wet rocks Surfbirds blend right in. However, when they fly up--usually as one flock--they reveal their diagnostic wing stripe and white rump.

Surfbirds often flock together with Black Turnstones. The turnstones have a harlequin wing pattern with many more white patches in flight. Feeding, Surbirds are grayer and slightly larger than Black Turnstones (10 inches long bill-tip to tail-tip), with thicker bill and legs.

In summer, Surfbirds breed in the mountainous tundra of interior Alaska and Yukon.


  1. Nice picture Greg! I hadn't heard the term rockpipers before. Makes sense and provides a perspective to these birds.

  2. Fantastic photo! I've yet to see one of these little guys. I'll have to make a trip out to San Diego or Mexico to get one.