Rock Sandpipers Calidris ptilocnemis have the most northerly non-breeding distribution of any shorebird in the Pacific Basin (upper Cook Inlet, Alaska; 61°N, 151°W). In terms of freezing temperatures, persistent winds and pervasive ice, this site is the harshest used by shorebirds during winter. We integrated physiological, metabolic, behavioural and environmental aspects of the non-breeding ecology of Rock Sandpipers at the northern extent of their range to determine the relative importance of these factors in facilitating their unique non-breeding ecology. Not surprisingly, estimated daily energetic demands were greatest during January, the coldest period of winter. These estimates were greatest for foraging birds, and exceeded basal metabolic rates by a factor of 6.5, a scope of increase that approaches the maximum sustained rate of energetic output by shorebirds during periods of migration, but far exceeds these periods in duration. We assessed the quality of their primary prey, the bivalve Macoma balthica, to determine the daily foraging duration required by Rock Sandpipers to satisfy such energetic demands. Based on size-specific estimates of M. balthica quality, Rock Sandpipers require over 13 h/day of foraging time in upper Cook Inlet in January, even when feeding on the highest quality prey. This range approaches the average daily duration of mudflat availability in this region (c. 18 h), a maximum value that annually decreases due to the accumulation of shore-fast ice. Rock Sandpipers are likely to maximize access to foraging sites by following the exposure of ice-free mudflats across the upper Cook Inlet region and by selecting smaller, higher quality M. balthica to minimize foraging times. Ultimately, this unusual non-breeding ecology relies on the high quality of their prey resources. Compared with other sites across their range, M. balthica from upper Cook Inlet have relatively light shells, potentially the result of the region's depauperate invertebrate predator community. Given the delicate balance between environmental and prey conditions that currently make Cook Inlet a viable wintering area for Rock Sandpipers, small variations in these variables may affect the suitability of the site in the future.