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Birders will love Sable Island. Located in the Atlantic Ocean, 70 minutes flying time southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the smile-shaped sandbar boasts an astonishing 350 bird species.

Herring gull in flight
Herring gull in flight
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

That's impressive, when you realize that the size of Sable Island is only 32 square kilometers (12.4 square miles) above sea level.

In 1977, before Sable Island National Park Reserve was established, it was protected as a Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

Herring gulls

The first birds that we saw when we landed on North Beach aboard Zodiacs from our Adventure Canada cruise were gulls. They soared above us and cautiously watched us from their nests.

It soon became apparent that we were observing two species of seagulls on Sable Island. "Herring gulls are medium-to-large sized gulls," explained Mark Mallory, a seabird biologist who accompanied us on the cruise as an ornithology expert.

"The adult plumage of a herring gull is white, with grey on the back and black wing tips. Their legs have a pinkish color." There are about 2,000 breeding pairs on Sable Island.

He cautioned us not to confuse herring gulls (Larus argentatus) with ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis), which are larger than herring gulls. "You can distinguish a ring-billed gull by the black band at the end of its bill."

Mark Mallory gives lecture on Adventure Canada ship
Mark Mallory gives lecture on Adventure Canada ship
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Great black-backed gull

Mallory pointed out a great black-backed gull (Larus marinus). "It's the largest gull in the world."

He explained that they are at the top of the food chain. "They will feed on anything that they can get into their mouths—seal carcasses, fish and other seabirds, as well as their eggs and chicks." The number of breeding pairs of great black-backed gulls on Sable Island represents about one percent of the Canadian population.

Back on the ship, Mark Mallory gave us an informative lecture about Biotransport — Just What the Birds Really Do. An author of more than 12 dozen scientific papers, and a researcher, he shared his knowledge and helped us identify our bird photos.

Bird I.D. wasn't an easy task for us, considering the number of seabirds around Sable Island. "There are probably 50 million seabirds in the area between Newfoundland and Labrador and Sable Island," said Mallory. "During the late winter and early spring, there are likely more than 100 million seabirds in the area."

Banding birds

Sarah Wong, another ornithologist on our Adventure Canada Sable Island trip, surveyed seabirds during our cruise of The Gully Marine Protected Area.

Broken gull eggshell
Broken gull eggshell
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Keep your eyes open," she advised us. "Researchers have attached colored bands to the legs of some of the gulls."

She explained that herring gulls have pink bands and great black-backed gulls have green bands. "It's hard to see them with binoculars, but if you take a photo, sometimes you can zoom in to read the code on the bands."

Look up and down

During our Sable Island hikes, Wong told bird-watchers that great black-backed gulls like to nest on the high ridges of the sand dunes, while herring gulls nest on the sand at ground level.

Why do gulls circle? We learned that gulls scavenge carrion and redeposit nutrients. They also eat clams that wash up on the shore.

Tagging studies indicate that some gulls stay on Sable Island. Some go offshore to fish and others fly to oil platforms where lights attract fish.

Sarah Wong also warned us to be careful where we walked. "The herring gulls are nesting in the dips between the dunes."

By our feet, we spotted a broken-open gull egg. The tan shell was speckled with brown, grey and black spots.

Leach's storm petrel

Sable Island also has a few dozen pairs of Leach's storm petrels (Oceanodroma leucorhoa). "In summer, they breed underground in burrows," said Wong.

"They lay one egg, which hatches to release a cute fuzzy chick. By the time the parents finish feeding their chicks, they are twice the size of the adults.

"If you see them on the water, Leach's storm petrels look like butterflies. After tagging two colonies, researchers discovered that they forage for fish up to 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away. It's an amazing distance for a bird that weighs only about 40 grams (1.4 ounces)." They fly back to Sable Island during the evening to avoid predation by the gulls.

Mark Mallory told us that their white-and-dark grey color camouflages them well over rippling waves. He explained that birders can identify Leach's storm petrels by their forked tails. This distinguishes them from Wilson's storm petrels, which have flat, slightly convex tails. "I observed a few of each species zipping around our ship," he said.

Bill Freedman looks through binoculars
Bill Freedman looks through binoculars
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Ecologist, author and former Chair of the Nature Conservancy of Canada board of directors, Bill Freedman is also an avid birder. During one of his onboard lectures to Adventure Canada passengers, he told us that Leach's storm petrels nest under the dilapidated Henry House on Sable Island. "It's an A-frame building constructed by Henry James, a psychology professor at Dalhousie University, as his base for studying grey seal behavior."

Ipswich sparrow

"There are 12 species of birds that breed on Sable Island," he explained, noting that the Ipswich sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensus princeps) is the only endemic bird.

"They are presently considered a sub-species of the Savannah sparrow," said Freedman, "but I believe that more work in molecular biology will result in the Ipswich sparrow being split out as a distinct endemic species that breeds only on Sable Island."

Although the estimated number of Ipswich sparrows on Sable Island is 6,000, we didn't see one. But we did hear their chirping sounds.

"The best place to look for Ipswich sparrows is on the tops of the hummocks," said Sarah Wong. "They nest in marram grass, but you can't see them because their nests are tucked into the grass."

Identification tips

She explained that the Ipswich sparrow is lighter than a Savannah sparrow, so that it can blend in with the sand. It also has a bit of yellow above the eyebrow.

"In the fall, there is a mass migration of Ipswich sparrows. They head to the Nova Scotia coast and then fly south for the winter."

She noted that some Ipswich sparrows had a tiny metal band on one leg and a colored band on the other. "The males have red bands and the females have green ones. Juveniles that couldn't be sexed have purple bands.

"If you see two color bands, the Ipswich sparrow has a radio tag. Receivers along the coast can identify the bird if it is close enough."

Roseate terns

Roseate terns (Sterna dougallii) also nest on the ground. They are listed as endangered in Canada, with fewer than a dozen breeding pairs.

There is a roseate tern colony at the west end of Sable Island, near the Main Station, and another colony on the east end.

Daryll Mooney identifies tern nesting area near Main Station
Daryll Mooney identifies tern nesting area near Main Station
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When we viewed Main Station in June with Parks Canada operations manager, Daryll Mooney, he did not allow us to approach the buildings. "The terns nesting in the heath will dive-bomb you if you get too close. They aggressively protect their nests from people and horses that may trample them and from gulls that try to eat their eggs."

White feather on sand
White feather on sand
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

He explained that even Parks Canada staff had to plan their routes to the buildings very carefully. "The eggs will hatch in two weeks. Last year, we had six pairs of roseate terns."

Common terns compared to Arctic terns

As we watched terns fly back from North Beach with fish in their bills, Mark Mallory answered our questions about the differences between common terns (Sterna hirundo) and Arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea), which also nest on Sable Island. "The common tern has an orange bill with a black tip and relatively short tail streamers. The sides of its cheeks are brilliant white."

He told us that Arctic terns have a fairly uniform blood-red or orange bill and very long tail feathers that extend past their wing tips. "They are amazing birds," he said. "Even though Arctic terns weigh only 110 grams (3.9 ounces), they fly more than 90,000 kilometers (55,900 miles) in one year."

Great and sooty shearwaters

Why is Sable Island such a great bird colony site? "Birds breed where they won't get eaten," explained Mallory. "That's why they like cliffs and islands."

His on-board presentation made us eager to look for other birds on Sable Island, including Northern fulmars, great skuas and shearwaters.

One of the birdwatchers in our group asked how to tell the difference between a great sheerwater (Puffinus gravis) and a sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus). "Great shearwaters resemble fulmars, but they are much more common. We've seen thousands of them already on this cruise," he said.

"They look like they are flying from their shoulders and move their whole wings up and down. Gulls, on the other hand, look like they are flying from their elbows.

"Sooty shearwaters are dark on top and below. You might see one of them for every 100 or 1,000 great shearwaters."

Black duckling in pond
Black duckling in pond
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

During her presentation, Sarah Wong explained that great shearwaters breed on the Tristan da Cunha islands in the Southern hemisphere. Tagging studies show that they use prevailing winds to choose their routes.

Bird checklist

On our Sable Island shore excursion the following day, we walked to a freshwater pond, where we spotted a least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla), a sparrow-sized shore bird with yellow legs. In the pond, a small black duckling paddled between the round leaves of yellow water lilies.

During our cruise, Mark Mallory posted a bird checklist on the bulletin board for passengers to record their sightings. After we returned, Adventure Canada sent us the list.

According to Bill Freedman, Sable Island has "pretty hot birding, if you like to see a lot of species." When is the best time for birding on Sable Island? "Late summer and autumn," he replied, noting that many of the species are vagrants. "Lots of unusual birds are blown here after storms."

As we cruised from Sable Island, a red-eyed vireo took refuge on the ship's deck. A deciduous forest canopy bird, it either got its signals crossed while migrating, or was blown off-course in a storm. After resting for several hours on the ship, the stowaway songbird resumed its journey to the mainland.


Adventure Canada

Sable Island National Park Reserve

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