Although they are naturally selected to be shorter and stockier
than artificially selected domestic breeds, Sable Island herds
are genetically horses, not ponies. Their wind-blown manes,
forelocks and tails are their most common features. We
wondered how they could see through the forelocks that
sometimes covered their eyes.
Our trip was in June, whenmany of the horses were shedding
their thick and shaggy winter coats. They travelled in bands
comprised of a dominant male, mares, yearlings and foals.
Sable Island has 40 to 50 bands of horses. Family bands of
five-to-eight individuals are themost common. Young stallions
that don’t yet have a harem often travel together in bachelor
groups. Females usually give birth between April and July. We
watched long-legged fillies and colts nursing and following
Horses are itchy.They are always looking for places to scratch
their backs. They roll in the sand to relieve the itch. They also
rub against the fence surrounding Environment Canada’s
meteorological equipment on the island. “When we’re
watching TV and it suddenly goes fuzzy, we know that a horse
is rubbing its rear end against the satellite dish,” said Daryll
Mooney, who was the Parks Canada operations co-ordinator
during our tour of Main Station.
To minimize their footprint, the two Parks Canada staff
use the pre-existing Environment Canada infrastructure.
“Three Environment Canada staff live in apartments on an
eight-weeks-on, eight-weeks-off rotational basis. They’re
self-sufficient with a dishwasher, fridge, WiFi, satellite TV
and cooking equipment,” explained Daryll. Three diesel
generators provide electricity. “Our maintenance guys are
very resourceful, because they can’t just go to Home Depot for
spare parts.” Other buildings include Zoe Lucas’s laboratory,
the carpentry shop, warehouses, the Environment Canada
office, the staff house (where visiting researchers stay) and
the officer-in-charge house.
“Collecting climate data on Sable Island goes back to the 1800s,”
said Jonathan Sheppard. “It helps us understand the dynamics
of global air currents.” Sable Island weather is characterized
by wind and fog (125 days of fog every year). During our tour,
white mist temporarily obscured Main Station.
Daryll didn’t allow us to approach the buildings because
roseate terns were nesting in the heath. “They will dive-bomb
you if you get too close,” he said. “The birds aggressively protect
their nests from people and horses that may trample them
and from gulls that try to eat their eggs. Last year, we had six
pairs of roseate terns.” (Roseate terns are listed as endangered
in Canada, with fewer than a dozen breeding pairs.)
Gulls soared above and cautiously watched us from their nests.
“The adult plumage of a herring gull is white, with grey on the
back and black wing tips,” explainedMarkMallory, a seabird
biologist and resource person on the cruise. His on-board
presentationmade us eager to look for other birds, including
great black-backed gulls (the world’s largest gulls), Northern
fulmars, great skuas, shearwaters, Arctic terns and the Ipswich
sparrow, the only endemic bird. He posted a bird checklist on
the bulletin board for passengers to record sightings. After
we returned, Adventure Canada sent us the list.
When on-board ornithologist Sarah Wong accompanied us
on a walk, she warned us to be careful: “Herring gulls nest
Photographing wild horses
from a distance
rotating Parks Canada
Environment Canada and Parks Canada buildings at Main Station
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