Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) is located south of James Bay, Ontario. It offers many birds a place to rest and feed.

Importance of the sanctuary: migratory birds and other wildlife

The Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary is composed of two distinct units:

  • Ship Sands Island
  • a portion of mainland

These are separated by the mouth of Moose River, on the southwestern side of James Bay. The Province of Ontario owns and manages the lands covered by this sanctuary and the Territory of Nunavut manages the areas below the high-water mark. While the habitat within this sanctuary is not considered to be particularly unusual or significantly different from surrounding areas, this protected area is a very important resting and feeding site for the lesser snow goose.

Lesser Snow Geese
Lesser snow geese in flight

The Moose River estuary is located along the southwestern coast of James Bay and is a designated Important Bird Area (IBA) which supports a significant numbers of staging snow geese during fall migration. In addition to geese, large numbers of other waterbirds utilize this site such as American black duck, green-winged teal, lesser scaup, common snipe, and black-bellied plover, dunlin, and sandhill crane.

The lesser snow geese gather in Ship Sands Island in early fall. They work their way upstream as they deplete the local food sources, often staying in the area until ice cuts off their food access. In the spring, these birds are most numerous early in the season, when sea ice is still solid, but the mouths of the nearby streams and rivers have opened up. While lesser snow geese congregate in this area in large numbers, they appear to travel north along the James Bay coast in relatively small groups.

Canada geese are also known to use this sanctuary, though in much smaller numbers than the lesser snow geese. As they feed mostly along the tide line, the feeding area used by the Canada geese differs from that of the lesser snow geese, which rely mainly on the coastal marsh zone. Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary provides a large, undisturbed feeding and resting area for migrating geese in an area of heavy hunting pressure; it is likely due to this that these birds gather in the sanctuary and remain there for extended periods of time. Atlantic brant are also sometimes seen in this area in the spring as they may stop on the open waters between Arnold Point and Ship Sands Island as well as at the mouth of the Partridge River.

Lesser Snow Goose
Lesser snow goose

During spring, dabbling ducks (ducks that feed near the surface of the water) including northern pintail, mallard, green-winged teal and American black duck often gather in the sanctuary’s open tidal marshes, though they do not nest here in large numbers. This sanctuary is not known to support very substantial numbers of ducks, however relatively small numbers do use the entire area along the coast of James Bay as moulting grounds and, during fall migration, these species of ducks make appearances in the sanctuary’s coastal marshes and creeks. Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary also provides habitat for migrating shorebirds such as yellowlegs and plovers, which can be spotted on the tidal mud flats from mid-July until October. While the sanctuary offers large undisturbed tidal flats and coastal marshes, the extent to which shorebirds depend on this site is currently unknown; however it is believed to be a critical resting and feeding area for these birds.  


The coastal boundaries of both the Ship Sands Island and the mainland unit of the sanctuary extend 61 metres offshore from the normal high-tide mark.  Numerous tidal creeks divide the downstream end (northeast) of the Ship Sands Island portion of the sanctuary and only a small amount of the extensive tidal mud flats adjoining the island are included within it. Immediately inland from the mud flats is a large flooded sedge marsh vegetated by grass-like species (carex sp.) with numerous pools of marsh arrowgrass scattered throughout. Along much of the shoreline, bulrush, cattail and flowers in the compositae family (such as asters or daisies) can be found growing between the mud flats and the sedge marsh. Further inland on the island, on slightly higher ground where the soil is dryer, the sedge marsh gradually transitions into a grassy meadow where willow and alder shrubs grow. The upstream half of the island (southwest) is covered in forests of varying density. The main species currently found in this area are black spruce, white spruce, tamarack and balsam poplar. Examination of past aerial photography indicates that vegetation succession has been occurring and the forest and shrub zones have been expanding to the detriment of the shrinking sedge marsh areas. The layout of the vegetation zones in the upstream half of Ship Sands Island is similar to that of the downstream half with the notable difference that the mud flats and sedge marsh areas are much narrower.

The mainland portion of the Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary extends from the eastern side of Arnold Point (Long Point) to Partridge Creek and is composed almost entirely of flooded sedge marsh with tidal mud flats forming the northern boundary. For the most part, this sedge marsh gradually transitions into willow thicket to the south. In some areas however, a clear distinction between willow and sedge zones is apparent; while in others, fingers of willow growth extend into the sedges and clumps of low willow can be found isolated in the marsh.

The pattern of vegetation found within the Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary (tidal mud flat – coastal sedge marsh – shrub willow/spruce forest) is common along most of the James Bay coast. Fens can also be found throughout the forested areas in this sanctuary. Numerous tidal creeks run through the sanctuary as do a number of freshwater creeks that flow into James Bay.

Did you know?

A fen is a type of wetland that is characterized by deep, peaty soil with grass-like vegetation and a less acidic pH than a bog. Sometimes referred to as the “green rivers” of the boreal, these ecosystems reduce the risk of downstream flooding by absorbing runoff water, they also moderate climate change by storing large quantities of carbon, they improve water quality and they provide habitat for many plants and animals. With so many benefits, these are definitely ecosystems worth protecting.

Map of the area

Map of Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Long description

    Map showing the location of the Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) in relation to Ontario, Ominik Creek, Hudson Bay, Moose River, Ship Sands Island, and Long Point. The map shows the boundaries of the refuge, which is divided in two zones, each covering a part of Hudson Bay's littoral and spreading towards inland from the two side of the river. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters and the intertidal areas are shown on the map. An inset on the map shows the location of the shelter in Canada.

Access to the sanctuary

Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, such as Moose River, are established across the country to protect migratory birds during critical periods of their life cycle. Whether these areas are used for feeding, resting or nesting, they play an important role in the survival of many species. Access to each migratory bird sanctuary varies by site and is at the discretion of the landowner and land manager. Please ensure that you are aware of how you can help protect this sanctuary and please read the restrictions, including those on firearms and hunting, which are in place to conserve the wildlife that call it home.

Please note that, according to the Migratory Bird Sanctuary Regulations (Permits section 11 c), “any waterfowl hunter may transport unloaded firearms and other hunting appliances through the Wavy Creek section of the Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary adjacent to Shipsands Island”. This allows the public to travel through the Wavy Creek section of the sanctuary as the local community uses Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary to access James Bay.

If you would like further information on what is permitted in Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, please visit the Management and Activities section of the website. For more information on Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary in particular, please contact our regional office.

Key facts about Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory Ontario
Latitude/longitude 51°20' N, 80°25' W
Size 1457 hectares
Date created (Gazetted) 1958
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management category Wilderness Area
Additional designations
Main habitat type Tidal mud flat, coastal marsh, forest interspersed with grassy meadows
Key bird species Lesser snow goose and Canada goose
Other species Birds: Northern pintail, mallard, green-winged teal, lesser and greater yellowlegs, plovers, Atlantic brant and American black duck
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) None
Management agency Canadian Wildlife Service, Ontario Region
Landowners Province of Ontario and Government of Nunavut

Related links

Moose River Migratory Bird Sanctuary on Google Maps (Please note that the Google map is a complementary source of information that can help locate the migratory bird sanctuary and does not represent the official map or site name)

Contact information

Environment and Climate Change Canada – Ontario Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Ecosystem Conservation
4905 Dufferin Street
Toronto ON M3H 5T4

Toll Free: 1-800-668-6767 (in Canada only)

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