Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary

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

Sable Island, often referred to as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” owing to its many shipwrecks, is situated approximately 180 km southeast of Canso and 300 km east of Halifax, Nova Scotia. A migratory bird sanctuary was established on the island in 1977 and comprises the entire island, a crescent of sand extending along an east-west axis for approximately 32 km. The island consists of 20 km of consolidated dunes and long unstabilized terminal bars at each end. Its maximum width is 1.5 km and the highest dunes approach 30 m. The north beach is steep and narrow, whereas the south beach is wide and flat. Beach grass dominates and has stabilized the dunes. Between the dunes are numerous depressions usually filled with freshwater and supporting a variety of aquatic plants. These small ponds are most numerous near the west end. A saltwater lake, 10 km in length, is located on the south beach about midway along the island.

Importance of the Migratory Bird Sanctuary

Beside the famous Sable Island horses, the natural wild fauna of the island consists of birds, seals and windswept vegetation surviving in a harsh landscape. Sable Island is the only known nesting place for the Ipswich Sparrow, a subspecies of the Savannah Sparrow. Over 2500 pairs of terns (about 60% Arctic) nest on the island along with over 500 pairs of Great Black-backed Gulls and 2000 pairs of Herring Gulls. A few sandpipers and Semipalmated Plovers nest on the island, and broods of American Black Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers are produced near the ponds.

In addition to the resident birdlife, there is an unusual abundance of migrants and exotic strays. Over 200 species of birds have been recorded on the island. The only land mammal on the island is the horse, a feral population that varies in numbers between 150 and 400. The Sable Island “pony” is thought to have originated from an introduction to the island in 1738. Both Harbour and Grey Seals occur here in concentrations larger than in any other place in the western North Atlantic.

In January 2010, the Government of Canada and the Government of Nova Scotia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that committed both governments to pursue federal protected area status for Sable Island, either as a national park or a national wildlife area. The Canada-Nova Scotia Sable Island Task Group, created as a result of the MOU, was mandated to determine whether a national wildlife area or a national park would better meet the needs of Sable Island. In its report submitted on April 22, 2010, the Task Group recommended that Sable Island be designated as a national park under the Canada National Parks Act. On October 17, 2011, the Government of Canada and the Government of Nova Scotia signed a Memorandum of Agreement to Establish a National Park at Sable Island. Formal consultations with the Mi’kmaq of Nova Scotia were also undertaken and are ongoing. Since April 1, 2012, Parks Canada is the main point of contact for Sable Island National Park Reserve, and is coordinating all access to the island.

Access and Activities

MBSs are established for the protection and conservation of migratory birds. Activities that could harm migratory birds, their nests or their eggs are prohibited.

MBSs can be and have been established on private, provincial, territorial and federally owned lands. Access to each MBS varies by site and is at the discretion of the landowner and land manager.

Where MBSs are located on federal land, Environment and Climate Change Canada is responsible for the management and protection of migratory birds, nests, eggs and habitat. Where MBSs are located on provincial land, Environment and Climate Change Canada is responsible for the protection of migratory birds and their nests, while the chief game officer of the province is responsible for the management of habitat. Where MBSs are located on private or municipal land, Environment and Climate Change Canada is responsible for the protection of migratory birds and their nests. Habitat management is the responsibility of the landowner.

The standard prohibitions under the Migratory Bird Sanctuary Regulations apply to Sable Island MBS: hunting migratory birds is prohibited, and no person shall disturb, destroy or take the nest of a migratory bird or have in his or her possession a live migratory bird, or a carcass, skin, nest or egg of a migratory bird, except under the authority of a permit issued by Environment and Climate Change Canada or unless authorized by the Regulations. Possession of firearms or other hunting appliances is prohibited. Dogs and cats must not be allowed to run at large.

Access prohibitions or restrictions by the MBS landowner (Parks Canada Agency) may also apply.

For more information on entry, activities and permits in MBSs, please visit the Management and Activities section of the Migratory Bird Sanctuaries website. For more information on Environment and Climate Change Canada's protected areas, please contact the regional office.

For greater certainty, nothing in this document shall be construed so as to abrogate or derogate from the protection provided for existing Aboriginal or treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada by the recognition and affirmation of those rights in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Map of the Area

  • Map of Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Long description of the map

Map showing the location of Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary in relation to Nova Scotia and the Atlantic Ocean. The map shows the boundaries of the sanctuary, which encompasses the entire island following the shoreline. The scale of the map is in kilometers.

This map is for illustrative purposes only and should not be used to define legal boundaries. Sable Island MBS can also be viewed using Google Maps. Please note that the Google map is a complementary source of information and does not represent the official map or site name.

Summary Table

Summary table for Sable Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Category Information
Protected Area designation Migratory Bird Sanctuary
Province or territory Nova Scotia
Latitude/longitude 43°56' N, 60°00' W
Size in hectares (ha) 3100 ha
Date created (Gazetted) 1977
International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) management category Ia - 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

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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