Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) is located north-east of Somerset Island, in Nunavut. It preserves habitat for large colonies of seabirds.

Importance of the sanctuary: migratory birds and other wildlife

Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary is situated in Lancaster Sound, approximately 13 kilometres off the northeastern tip of Cape Clarence, Somerset Island, in Nunavut. This sanctuary is one of the most important multi-species seabird colonies in the Arctic as it supports large numbers of nesting thick-billed murre, northern fulmar, black-legged kittiwake and black guillemot. Prince Leopold Island is also an important site for seabird research, and the monitoring that has been ongoing at this site since 1975 has generated one of the strongest datasets for seabird monitoring in the Arctic.

It is estimated that 6% of Canada’s thick-billed murre population, approximately 100 000 pairs of birds, nest on the Prince Leopold Island sea cliffs. At the end of the breeding season, large numbers of flightless juvenile murres swim from Prince Leopold Island through Lancaster Sound and south to winter off the West Greenland coast and in the Labrador Sea.

Prince Leopold Island also hosts an estimated 11% of the Canadian northern fulmar population, which nest throughout the coastal cliffs around the island (with the exception of the northern coast). These approximately 22 000 breeding pairs represent over half of the northern fulmars that breed in Lancaster Sound. Creswell Bay, located 170 kilometres away at the southern end of Somerset Island, is an important feeding area for Prince Leopold Island’s fulmars.

Northern Fulmar
Northern fulmar at Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary. Photo: Alain Fontaine

Black-legged kittiwake, approximately 29 000 pairs or 16% of Canada’s population, also inhabit Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary between mid-May and late September. These birds nest scattered throughout the thick-billed murre colonies on both the island’s eastern cliffs and in its northeastern corner. The black-legged kittiwakes forage up to 80 kilometres away from Prince Leopold Island along the coast of Somerset Island.

It is also estimated that 5% of the Canadian population, or 4000 pairs, of Black Guillemot nest in the crevices along the southern and western cliffs of Prince Leopold Island. This is notable as it is one of the largest known groupings of this species in Canada.

All of the breeding seabirds that are present in the sanctuary from mid-May to mid-September disperse shortly after breeding. The majority of them migrate southward to the Arctic Circle, although some of the black guillemots may overwinter in the high Arctic.

Did you know?

Sea birds spend expended periods of time at sea; they eat food that they catch from the salt waters and when thirsty they drink seawater. In order to survive in such a salty environment these birds have developed their very own desalinization system called “salt glands”. The ingested salt is excreted through these glands in a highly concentrated liquid through their nostrils. Some birds will shake their head or “sneeze” to help force out this salty solution.

In addition to the breeding seabirds, the sanctuary is also important for six other species of breeding birds. Five of these species, namely brant, common eider, parasitic jaeger, common raven and snow bunting, all breed here in small numbers. An estimated 75 pairs of glaucous-winged gulls also nest throughout the seabird colonies. These birds prey on the eggs, chicks and sometimes even the adults of other species, and their predation can have a significant effect on the breeding success of the other birds, particularly murres.

With the exception of a small collared lemming population, there are no resident populations of terrestrial mammals on Prince Leopold Island.

Nonetheless, several transient mammals have been recorded on the island including peary caribou, arctic hare, arctic fox and polar bear. Marine mammals, on the other hand, are plentiful in the waters surrounding the island.


The Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary, established in 1995, encompasses the entirety of Prince Leopold Island as well as all waters within five kilometres of the shore. Located 150 kilometres southeast of Resolute Bay and 175 kilometres northwest of Arctic Bay, this island rises steeply from the waters surrounding it. Sandstone and limestone cliffs, between 245 to 265 metres above sea level, jut out of Parry Channel to form a flat-topped, approximately 64 square kilometre island. The ledges and crevices formed from the eroding layers of sedimentary rock provide ideal nesting habitat for the variety of seabirds that flock to the island each summer.

Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Due to the early spring break-up of ice in the waters adjacent to the island, phytoplankton and zooplankton bloom much earlier in this area than in other areas of the high Arctic. The strong currents in Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound also bring in nutrient from other areas, further enhancing the productivity of the rich marine region around the sanctuary. This provides an abundance of food for fish and crustaceans, which are in turn eaten by seabirds. A variety of marine mammals are also attracted to these open waters including beluga, bowhead whale, narwhal, walrus, ringed seal and bearded seal.

Map of the area

Map of Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Long description

    Map showing the location of the Prince Leopold Island in relation to Nunavut, Prince Leopold Island, Somerset Island, parry Channel, Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait. The maps shows the boundaries of the refuge, which covers the Prince Leopold Island and part of the nearby waters. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters 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 Prince Leopold Island, 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.

The MBS is managed by Environment and Climate Change Canada in partnership with the Sulukvaut Area Co-management Committee (ACMC) of Resolute Bay, Nunavut.

Please note that, as per the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement for National Wildlife Areas and Migratory Bird Sanctuaries in the Nunavut Settlement Area, Nunavut beneficiaries do not require a permit to carry out activities related to subsistence harvesting in this sanctuary. Other individuals who wish to access Prince Leopold Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary must apply for a permit.

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 Prince Leopold Migratory Bird Sanctuary in particular, please contact our regional office.

Key facts about Prince Leopold Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory Nunavut
Latitude/longitude 74°02' N, 90°00' W
Size 30 399 hectares including more than 24 000 hectares of marine habitat
Date created (Gazetted) 1992
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Management Category Wilderness Area (Ib)
Additional designations
Main habitat type Open water (80%), vertical sandstone and limestone
Key bird species Black guillemot, black-legged kittiwake, glaucous gull, northern fulmar, snow bunting and thick-billed murre
Other species Birds: Brant, common eider, common raven, and parasitic jaeger
Mammals: Arctic hare, arctic fox, collared lemming, narwhal, beluga whale, bowhead whale, walrus, ringed seal and bearded seal
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) Polar bear, peary caribou
Management agency Canadian Wildlife Service, Northern Region, in collaboration with the Resolute Co-Management Committee of Resolute Bay
Landowners Crown land

Related link

Prince Leopold 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 – Northern Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Protected Areas and Stewardship
Eastern Arctic Unit
P.O. Box 1714
Iqaluit NU X0A 0H0

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

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