THE SURFBIRD winters along the coast of South America and migrates to the Mount McKinley region in the interior of Alaska for the breeding season. In migration, it is found on rocky islets along the Pacific coast of North and South America where it lives on marine life gathered amid the spray of the breaking waves.
It is a heavy-set ploverlike shore bird about the size of a common killdeer plover (10 inches long). In the field, it may be recognized by its white breast which is covered with numerous bold, black triangular markings. The white bar across each wing and white patch at the base of the tail are both conspicuous when the bird takes wing.
Although the surfbird has been known to science for 150 years, the first nest and eggs of this species was discovered by George Wright and me in Mount McKinley National Park in May 1926. The Indians had a legend that this bird nested far in the interior, high up on the mountains above timber line. Scientists said this was a case of mistaken identity. The nest we found was 1,000 feet above timber line, just as the Indians said. It was merely a slight depression on an open rocky ridge beside a well used mountain sheep trail, and was located when we almost stepped on the brooding bird. While we were watching the nest, a female sheep came along the trail and at the last moment, just as she was about to step on the nest, the incubating surfbird flew directly up into the face of the astonished animal. The sudden noise and flash of white of the bird's wings and tail frightened the sheep so that she jumped back quickly. Repeated experiments showed that this was the bird's regular way of saving its nest and eggs from being stepped on.
During the 18 hours we watched this nest, the male alone incubated the eggs. This "maternal" male was extremely careful to keep them warm and dry. Whenever he returned to the nest he always approached cautiously, being careful not to step on the eggs. Then, turning the eggs over with his bill (see illustration), he squatted down, fluffed out his breast feathers, and slid gently forward, covering them.
Last Updated: 01-Jul-2010