A wide array of birds can be found at an isolated Canadian island that has been the site of repeated accidental human tragedies of historic proportions.
This world famous birding hotspot and shrine to maritime disasters is visited by plovers where pirates once pillaged. Canada’s Sable Island is a windswept monument to navigation errors of sailors and birds, and also is one of the most unique birding destinations in the world.
By Rex Graham
Canada-based Eagle-Eye Tours in June visits this unique, spit of rolling sand dunes and freshwater ponds. It’s warmer in winter and cooler in summer than mainland Nova Scotia, which is 300 km (190 mi) to the northwest.
“Sable Island’s wild horses are world-famous, but there’s so much more to this remote sand island off the coast of Nova Scotia,” says an Eagle-Eye tour description. “The world’s largest colony of Grey Seals breeds here, as do the rare Roseate Tern and the endemic Ipswich Sparrow, among many birds of note.”
Seen from the Space Shuttle, the island is a brown thread on a vast blue fabric. However, it also is a deadly barb that has impaled more than 200 ships and fishing boats.
“The visible island is 21 miles long and is extended underwater by a bar at each end,” Acadia University (Nova Scotia) Geology Professor H.L. Cameron wrote in Geological Review in 1965. “The whole forms a 50-mile-long menace to shipping.”
Sable Island Navigation Errors
Avian navigational errors lead to an unusually high number of vagrant species for any Atlantic island: Varied Thrush, Townsend’s Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, Painted Bunting and 24 other species not usually found here.
Shipwrecked sailors one sheltered on this treeless nonfiction version of Robinson Crusoe. They lived on wild berries and feral animals. They built escape rafts from the wooden remains of shipwrecks. A few even made it to Nova Scotia.
The “Graveyard of the Atlantic” is home or resting place for Double-crested Cormorants, gulls, Atlantic Puffins, American Golden and Black-bellied Plovers, Manx Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Spotted Sandpipers, Knots and Ruddy Turnstones. Snowy Owls occasionally fly in. A few Barn Swallows mud their nests under the eaves of government buildings.
Sable Island’s Malevolent Oceanography
Sable Island is actually glacial debris continually exhumed at the edge of the North American Continental Shelf. Here, an unpredictable eddy spins Sable Island into malevolent life where the northward flowing Gulf Stream collides with the colder, southward flowing Labrador Current.
Pirates waited for victims on this shape-shifting, fog-shrouded geological ghost that redeposits its sandy shoulders miles in either direction. Lighthouses were unreliable. Strong winds still create “blow outs” in the dunes that exhume decaying shipwrecks.
In 1853, Dorthea Dix landed at the Sable Island Humane Station. “The appalling loss of live among fishermen caused her to look deeply into marine safety,” said Thomas Appleton, an historian of marine transportation during a 1974 lecture. Dix, who created asylums for the mentally ill in the U.S., and served as Superintendent of Army Nurses during the Civil War, raised money for advanced (at the time) metallic lifeboats for Sable Island rescue operations.
Radio beacons, GPS receivers and modern navigation technologies have made travel to the island safe. The feral rats, rabbits and cats are gone. Thousands of intentionally introduced trees and shrubs “have not become established,” researchers with St. John’s University (New York) and the New York Botanical Garden wrote in the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society.
About 145 native and 79 non-native plants grow here. Grass and ample fresh water sustain the horses, which are friendly toward government workers, scientists and the occasional birdwatcher. It’s a haven for many birds. A male Least Sandpiper banded as a 2-year-old in 1970 on the island was recaptured a few meters from the original spot in 1985.