Sable Island’s Birds vs. Invertebrates

The wonders of nature are endless – Walt Disney

When people think of Sable Island, they may think of a windswept island of sand, the island’s famous feral horses, or its involvement in maritime stories. More overlooked is Sable’s vibrant collection of fauna and flora, the latter having previously been touched upon in my ‘Guide to Sable Island’s habitats and plants’. When considering Sable’s fauna though, the most abundant can be split into its birds and its invertebrates.


Juvenile gull

Over Sable’s recorded history, at least 340 bird species have been observed on the island. These species span from American kestrel (Falco sparverius) to ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) to red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), the last being one species I got to see myself this summer on Sable.

More than 45% of bird species that have been observed on Sable though, are termed as vagrants. This means that they have strayed from their usual range, for example arriving on the island due to being blown off course by strong winds during migration. As a result, I had the pleasure of seeing one iconic species during my stay this summer; a snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca), floating like a ghost between the island’s dunes.

Snowy owl 3

Snowy Owl

Many species also use the island as a stopover site during their migration, for example waders, raptors and warblers. Regular migrant species include willet (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus), sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus), grey-cheeked thrush (Catharus minimus) and:



Female American Golden Plover and sandpiper

Female American golden plover (Pluvialis dominica) (sandpiper in foreground)

Ruddy turnstone

Ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres)


Sanderling (Calidris alba)


Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

White-rumped sandpiper

White-rumped sandpiper (Calidris fuscicollis)

Of the 340+ species seen on Sable though, more than 30 have been recorded as breeding on the island. Regular breeders include:

  • Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea)
  • Common tern (Sterna hirundo)
  • Roseate tern (Sterna dougallii)
  • Herring gull (Larus argentatus)
  • Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus)
  • Ipswich sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps)= endemic
    • Subspecies of Savannah sparrow and of conservation concern

Ipswich sparrow

  • Leach’s storm-petrel (Oceanodroma leucorhoa)
  • American black duck (Anas rubripes)
  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
  • Red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator)
  • Northern pintail (Anas acuta)
  • Least sandpiper (Calidris minutilla)
  • Spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia)

Juvenile spotted sandpiper


In comparison to the 340+ bird species that have been recorded on Sable Island, 875+ invertebrate species have been identified on and in its marine proximity. Species include the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), painted lady (Vanessa cardui), seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata), and round-tipped cone-headed grasshopper (Neoconocephalus retusus).

Six spot ladybird

Seven-spot ladybird (Coccinella septempunctata)

Six spot ladybird larvae

Seven-spot ladybird larvae

Sable Island also has some endemic invertebrate species. These include the Sable Island leaf beetle (Pyrrhalta sablensis), the Sable Island sweat bee (Lasioglossum sablense)and three moth species (Agrotis arenariusOrgyia leucostigma sablensis and a Papaipema species).

Though I did not get enough time on Sable Island to delve too deeply into the world of the invertebrates, I did enjoy seeing new species and identifying the many caterpillars I saw, such as:

Apple sphinx moth caterpillar

Apple sphinx moth caterpillar (Sphinx gordius)

Virginian tiger moth caterpillar

Virginian tiger moth caterpillar 2

Two variants of Virginian tiger moth caterpillars (Spilosoma virginica)

Guide to Sable Island’s habitats and plants

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better – Albert Einstein

Sable Island, 250km from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, is an island made entirely of sand. For approximately two thirds of the island runs a series of high dunes, flanked by two long sandy beaches, and are considered one of the largest dune systems in Eastern Canada. With the island experiencing a maritime temperate climate, the island sustains a range of habitat types, which include grassland, heath, sandwort, freshwater ponds, brackish ponds, and non-vegetated terrain.

Due to strong winds and a lack of soil, the island is treeless (apart from one) and is dominated by low-growing plant species. When on the island myself, one thing i loved, other than the vast variety of plant species, was the strong smell of lush green vegetation that would bombard my sense of smell everytime i was out and about walking.

Plant Species

In 2016, 183 vascular plant species were recorded on Sable Island, in which 34% were considered alien species.

Here’s a selection of different, more notable species that can be found on Sable Island:

Common species

Marram grasslandAmerican marram grass (Ammophila breviligulata)= Most common species

Beach peaBeach pea (Lathyrus japonicas var. maritimus)

Common yarrowCommon yarrow (Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis)

SandwortSea sandwort (Honckenya peploides sp. robusta)

Common wild roseCommon wild rose (Rosa virginiana)
Edible fruit and fragrant flowers

Lowbush blueberryLowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)
Edible fruit

Large cranberryLarge cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)
Edible fruit

New york asterNew York aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii)

Swamp smartweed

Stretch of swamp smartweedSwamp smartweed (Polygonum hydropiperoides)

Wild strawberryWild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana sp. glauca)
Edible fruit

Small flowered evening primroseSmall flowered evening primrose (Oenothera parviflora)

Blue flag irisBlue flag iris (Iris versicolor)

Hooded Ladies' tressesHooded ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana)

Blue eyed grassBlue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)

Hedge bindweedHedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium)

Seaside goldenrodSeaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens)

Pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis)
Common juniper (Juniperus communis var. megistocarpa)
Star-flowered false solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum)
Black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)= Edible fruit
Bayberry (Morella pensylvanica)= Edible fruit and aromatic leaves
Wand dewberry (Rubus arcuans)= Edible fruit
Threepetal bedstraw (Galium trifidum)



Rushes and sedges

Baltic rush (Juncus balticus var. littoralis)
Canada rush (Juncus canadensis)
Slender rush (Juncus tenuis)
Jointleaf rush (Juncus articulatus)

Star sedge (Carex echinata)
Soft-stemmed bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani)



Other grass species (Poa and fescue)

Red fescue (Festuca rubra)
Annual meadow grass (Poa annua)
Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis)
Bentgrass (Agrostis scabra)

Introduced species

Curled dockCurled dock (Rumex crispus)

Black knapweedBlack knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

White clover (Trifolium repens)
Common heather (Calluna vulgaris)
Red clover (Trifolium pratense)
Common plantain (Plantago major)
English plantain (Plantago lanceolata)

Sable Island’s Only Tree

On Sable Island, due to the extreme conditions, there is only one living tree. This tree is a Scot’s pine, standing at a few feet tall. It was planted 50 years ago and can be found at the ‘Pine Tree Pond’ near Main Station on the island.

Here’s a couple of photos of the tree with the Sable Island Horse Project’s crew for the second half of this year’s summer field season: