Coping with the Cold: An Ecological Context for the Abundance and Distribution of Rock Sandpipers during Winter in Upper Cook Inlet, Alaska


  • Daniel R. Ruthrauff
  • Robert E. Gill, Jr.
  • T. Lee Tibbitts



Alaska, Calidris ptilocnemis, cold adaptations, Cook Inlet, Macoma balthica, Rock Sandpiper, winter distribution


Shorebirds are conspicuous and abundant at high northern latitudes during spring and summer, but as seasonal conditions deteriorate, few remain during winter. To the best of our knowledge, Cook Inlet, Alaska (60.6˚ N, 151.6˚ W), is the world’s coldest site that regularly supports wintering populations of shorebirds, and it is also the most northerly nonbreeding location for shorebirds in the Pacific Basin. During the winters of 1997–2012, we conducted aerial surveys of upper Cook Inlet to document the spatial and temporal distribution and number of Rock Sandpipers (Calidris ptilocnemis) using the inlet. The average survey total was 8191 ± 6143 SD birds, and the average of each winter season’s highest single-day count was 13 603 ± 4948 SD birds. We detected only Rock Sandpipers during our surveys, essentially all of which were individuals of the nominate subspecies (C. p. ptilocnemis). Survey totals in some winters closely matched the population estimate for this subspecies, demonstrating the region’s importance as a nonbreeding resource to the subspecies. Birds were most often found at only a handful of sites in upper Cook Inlet, but shifted their distribution to more southerly locations in the inlet during periods of extreme cold. Two environmental factors allow Rock Sandpipers to inhabit Cook Inlet during winter: 1) an abundant bivalve (Macoma balthica) food source and 2) current and tidal dynamics that keep foraging substrates accessible during all but extreme periods of cold and ice accretion. C. p. ptilocnemis is a subspecies of high conservation concern for which annual winter surveys may serve as a relatively inexpensive population-monitoring tool that will also provide insight into adaptations that allow these birds to exploit high-latitude environments in winter.