Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

The Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) of Sable Island is located in southeastern Nova Scotia. It hosts many seabirds and allows rest and tranquility.

Importance of the sanctuary: migratory birds and other wildlife

Sable Island is a small island located approximately 180 kilometres southeast of Canso and 300 kilometres east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. This crescent-shaped island is often referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” as hundreds of ships have met their end on its shifting sands. The Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary was established in 1977 and covers the entirety of the island, which is approximately 32 kilometres long and follows an east-west axis.

Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary: landscape. Photo: Andrew Macfarlane

While it is famous for the wild sable island horses that roam it freely, this harsh landscape supports other life including birds, seals and windswept vegetation. One of the species of note on this island is the ipswich sparrow, a subspecies of the savannah sparrow, which is designated as being of Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act.

Ipswich Sparrow
Sable Island: ipswich sparrow. Photo: Andrew Macfarlane 

Over 2500 pairs of terns also nest on the island, of which approximately 60% are Arctic Terns, along with over 500 pairs of great black-backed gulls and 2000 pairs of herring gulls. There are also a few sandpipers and semipalmated plovers that nest on the island. American black ducks and red-breasted mergansers are also known to breed in the freshwater ponds that develop between the dunes on the island. In addition to the island’s resident birdlife, an unusual abundance of over 200 species of migrants and many exotic strays have been spotted here over the years.

The only mammals living on the island itself are the wild horses whose population varies between 150 to 400 individuals. In the waters surrounding the island however, both harbour seals and grey seals occur in concentrations larger than in any other place in the western North Atlantic.

Did you know?

How the sable island horses ended up on this sandy island is somewhat of a mystery. Popular belief is that they swam to shore from one or many of the ships that sank near the island, however it is more likely that they were introduced in 1738 during an attempt to start a farming settlement on the island.


Sable Island is made up of 20 kilometres of consolidated dunes, which are a type of sandstone formed when a dune becomes compacted and hardens. The highest dunes on the island reach nearly 30 metres in height. Beach grass is the dominant vegetation on the island and it has to stabilize the dunes. The numerous depressions between these dunes are usually filled with freshwater, which supports a variety of aquatic plants; these small ponds are most numerous on the western end of the island. There is also a 10-kilometre saltwater lake at approximately the midpoint on the southern beach. This beach on this southern side of the island is wide and flat, in contrast, the northern beach is much steeper and narrower. At its widest, the island measures 1.5 kilometres across and, at each of its ends, are long shifting sand bars.

Map of the area

Map of Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
  • Long description

    Map showing the location of Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary (MBS) in relation to Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Ocean. The map shows the boundaries of the refuge, which encloses the entire island along the shoreline. The scale of the map is in kilometers. Permanent waters and intertidal areas are shown on the map. An insert on the map shows the location of the shelter in Canada.

Access to the sanctuary

Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, such as Sable 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. It is also important to remember that dogs and cats must not be allowed to run at large inside Migratory Bird Sanctuaries.

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 Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary in particular, please contact our regional office.

Key facts about Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory Nova Scotia
Latitude/longitude 43°56' N, 60°00' W
Size 2350 hectares
Date created (Gazetted) 1977
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management category Strict Nature Reserve
Additional designations
Main habitat type Overwash (terminal) sand spits (18%), beach (23%), consolidated sand dunes (54%), saltwater lake (5%)
Key bird species Savannah sparrow ipswich subspecies, great black-backed gull, herring gull, semipalmated plover, American black duck, red-breasted merganser, arctic tern, common tern, roseate tern, blue-winged teal, spotted sandpiper and least sandpiper
Other species Mammals: Horse, harbour seal and grey seal
Listed species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) Savannah sparrow ipswich subspecies
Management agency Canadian Wildlife Service, Atlantic Region
Landowner Parks Canada Agency

Related links

Contact information

Environment and Climate Change Canada - Atlantic Region
Canadian Wildlife Service
Protected Areas Program
17 Waterfowl Lane
Sackville NB E4L 1G6

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

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