Work begins on new Nature Conservancy of Canada migratory bird sanctuary

(Nature Conservancy of Canada photo) The Nature Conservancy of Canada has broken ground on its migratory bird sanctuary project that will see an old gravel pit at Henderson’s Point in Grand Manan Island restored back to a sanctuary.

GRAND MANAN ISLAND – The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has broken ground on a new migratory bird sanctuary at Henderson’s Point in Grand Manan Island.

Aaron Dowding, New Brunswick stewardship manager with the NCC, is leading a restoration project on an abandoned gravel pit with the goal of returning a coastal gem to its former glory.

“This goes back to 2017-2018 when we acquired this property,” he recalled. “When we acquired this piece of property, we knew that it had an old gravel pit on it and always intended to do some restoration.”

Part of the NCC’s 234-hectare nature reserve on the southeast coast of Grand Manan Island, the property is located next to Anchorage Provincial Park and a large section is within the Grand Manan Migratory Bird Sanctuary.

The sanctuary was designated back in 1931 to protect habitat for waterfowl and a variety of other breeding and migratory bird species and is one of the best destinations for birding enthusiasts and photographers in Atlantic Canada as more than 300 bird species visit, the NCC noted.

According to the NCC, a large homestead and farm once occupied a portion of the property along the coast at Henderson’s Point. After the farm was abandoned, new owners developed a gravel pit to extract shale aggregate in the 1980s and 1990s. Following the closure of the pit, they said the site was left to revegetate naturally and residents have used it for hunting, fishing, offroad vehicle use and dumping trash, along with other uses.

“It turned into a bit of a free-for-all for burning cars, and dumping, and parties,” said Dowding. “When we acquired it, we figured ‘well, that’s not really in keeping with a nature reserve that’s part of a migratory bird sanctuary.’”

The NCC said the goal is to bring the site back to its natural state as a haven for birds, nature and people.

“What we’re trying to do is kick-start parts of the site back to natural coastal forest that hasn’t quite regenerated yet,” said Dowding. “There’s large areas of this gravel pit that have trees on it that are over 10 to 15 feet tall and other areas that are completely baren and those are the areas that we’re working on.”

Persistent off-road vehicle traffic, compacted ground and harsh growing conditions (heat and moisture) appear to be inhibiting complete natural revegetation of the site, noted the NCC.

Dowding said the NCC is expecting to see some progress within the next five years.

“That’s where we’re using some gravel pit restoration techniques that will just loosen the soil and create a ground contour that’s more consistent with the natural forest,” Dowding said. “That will allow water to be retained easier. Leaves and other debris from the forest, in the fall, will get trapped and increase nutrients in the soil and allow planting to have a better chance to get rooted and grow.”

To complete the restoration project, NCC staff will hire heavy machinery contractors to do the majority of the work, which will involve re-grading the Ox Head Road; creating ditches, berms and large boulder placements to decommission a selection of existing roads and problematic access points; recontouring and loosening compacted soil; and redistributing substrate to enable planting.

The NCC said volunteers, staff and contractors will do the planting following the construction phase, and parking areas will be created, along with interpretive and directional signage to direct traffic and explain the project to visitors.

The NCC said tree and shrub plantings of hardy early successional hardwood shrub and tree species, grown from locally sourced seed will be used, and populations of high priority invasive species will be removed from the site where possible.

“We’ve been planning for the past year, fundraising and developing a plan that we feel will balance out the needs of the site, so nature and forest ecology, as well as people because this is a pretty important spot for locals,” he said. “Some people are periwinkle harvesting, some people are dog walking, other people are travelling through on trucks and ATVs. We don’t want to stop that kind of thing. We’re not here to change the way that people use the site, we just want to change the way they impact and effect the site.”

To have plants that will thrive in that harsh environment, Dowding said the NCC is planting grey birch, pin cherry, willow and green alder.

“We have a lot of the dumped materials out of the way, old mattresses and car parts. There was a car engine here a few weeks ago, (we) got rid of that. There’s a lot of brush that’s been dumped and we’re actually going to use that in the restoration planting,” said Dowding. “As far as landscaping, this heavy machinery loosening and recontouring it, that’s a big part. That’ll be a major part of the next 10 days, as well as our plantings.”

The NCC said this is the first gravel pit restoration undertaken in the Maritimes, but the organization has done similar projects elsewhere across the country.

NCC is planning to track restoration results and recruit a volunteer group to help watch over the site and monitor progress. They said the project is expected to be complete by March 2024, and an assessment will be carried out over five years to determine if there is a need for follow up treatments.

The NCC said it held a community meeting in November 2022 at the Grand Manan Christmas Market to get ideas and solicit feedback from residents.

“People had a chance to look at what we were going to do. We had some big photos up of the current and our proposed vision.”

The intent is to also make it better for the birds and wildlife and safer for nature lovers and photographers who use the area for walking, bird watching, the NCC said, noting that ATVs and other vehicles will still have access through the site on designated trails and roads.

“It’s just a spider web of old roads and trails that were either part of the homestead back in the 1800s and into the 1900s, or ATV trails that popped up after the gravel pit went in,” Dowding stated. “They only go to a couple of places, but people are taking as many trails as there are options to get there and we figure we can narrow that down, designate some thoroughfares, and some designated roads, and we’ll maintain those for people to have vehicle and walking access, but close-off some the trails that are unnecessary. That’ll help alleviate the dumping and allow the entire forest to come back.”

Based on public feedback, Dowding said the main takeaways were maintaining public access to important areas and allowing people to get there using cars, trucks, ATVs and on foot. Aside from some suggestions of resistance, he said residents have been positive about the changes.

“We’ve largely just been trying to get anybody who’s interested to come out and comment on our plans,” he said. “I did get a chance to meet with members of the ATV community and they didn’t seem to have a real issue with the idea of maintaining access but making some changes. Trying to get people’s thoughts on what they’d like to see here, how they use the site now, what they knew of the site before, and trying to integrate that into the plan so that it’s not just what we think is good for the land, from an ecological or conservation perspective, but also from a locals and land-use perspective.”

Up until Sept. 14, the NCC said residents are being encouraged to join the effort to put down and spread mulch on the property that will support the planting of hundreds of trees.

For more information about the sanctuary, visit

For more information or to contact Dowding, email him at

“If people come out to the site and they do have comments, they can reach out to me directly,” added Dowding. “I’m open to talking to people.”