Record flock of sandhill cranes at Sherburne refuge

Cranes fly in formation in dawn light
Migrating sandhill cranes fly over the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Big Lake, Minn. at sunrise on Saturday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Every fall, sandhill cranes making their way south from Canada to their wintering ground in the southern U.S. and Mexico gather at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, about 50 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

It’s the perfect layover stop for the long-necked, leggy birds: vast marshy wetlands and fields full of leftovers from the fall harvest. 

On a typical early November day, the refuge sees about 14,000 sandhill cranes. But during a weekly survey last Tuesday, refuge staff and volunteers counted a record number of cranes in a single day — more than 29,000.

“It basically blows every previous year's number out of the water,” said Cody Carlstrom, a wildlife biologist at the refuge. “It certainly surpasses any and all of our previous count estimates that we've had.”

Thousands of birds stand in a wetland area.
Sandhill cranes gathered at the St. Francis Pool at the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in the fall of 2020.
Courtesy of Bruce Ellingson

The sandhill cranes are looking for a safe resting area that provides native roosting habitat during their long migration flight, he said. 

The refuge is attractive because of its high-quality wetlands, including the St. Francis Pool, a 1,500-acre mix of open water, mud flats, cattails and rushes, Carlstrom said. It’s a place where the cranes can gather together and provide strength in numbers to avoid predators.

Cranes dot the sky over a grove of trees in dawn light
Migrating sandhill cranes fly over the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Big Lake, Minn. at sunrise.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“With the mudflats being exposed, they can poke around for seeds, macroinvertebrates, fish, amphibians and stuff to basically refuel themselves for migration,” Carlstrom said. There’s also plenty of waste grain left behind in the farm fields that surround the refuge, he said. 

The cranes spend their days hunting for food, then return to the refuge at dusk to roost. They stay until the weather turns colder, and ice forms on the wetlands, he said.

There could be many factors contributing to the large number of sandhill cranes at the refuge this year. Their population has rebounded since nearly being wiped out in the late 19th century. Cranes are protected under state and federal law and may not be shot, except for a limited hunting season in northern Minnesota.

Cranes fly in formation in dawn light
Migrating sandhill cranes fly over the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge at sunrise on Saturday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Also, this fall’s unusually warm weather may have delayed the cranes’ migration, causing them to hang around longer, Carlstrom said.

For bird lovers, it’s been an ideal year for people to visit the refuge to view the graceful gray and white birds, whose wingspan can stretch more than 6 feet. Visitors often come to watch and photograph the cranes as they leave the refuge at dawn or return at dusk.

“They’re very vocal in the mornings when the sun starts to come up, and they all start to kind of wake up,” Carlstrom said.

The roar of the crowd

Bruce Ellingson is a wildlife photographer and a volunteer interpreter with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the 30,700-acre refuge. He’s also a member of the nonprofit Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge.

When thousands of noisy sandhill cranes gather together, their loud, rattling calls sound like the roar of a sellout crowd at a sporting event, Ellingson said.

“It does sound from a distance as though there's a Big Ten football game going on, and everybody is cheering,” he said.

Cranes dot the sky over a grove of trees in dawn light
Migrating sandhill cranes fly over the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge at sunrise.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Dean Kleinhans, another member of the Friends group, has been helping to count the cranes on a weekly basis. This past week, he counted more than 6,000 cranes himself, a number he called “phenomenal.”

“It's amazing to see, and you never get tired of the sound,” Kleinshans said. "It doesn't matter how many times you see them. They're just wonderful to see, especially in mass, because it's such a congregate sound.”

Watch: Sandhill cranes at Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge in 2020

Cold front clear out

With the cold front coming through Minnesota this weekend, many of the cranes have now left.

For anyone considering a visit, Kleinhans cautioned that crane-watching at the refuge is not the same experience as in Nebraska, where visitors can watch the cranes converge en masse on the Platte River. 

The St. Francis wetland, where most of the cranes spend their time at the Sherburne refuge, is not accessible to the public, except for those willing to hike about 2 miles.

But next year there should be plenty of opportunities to see the cranes along the refuge’s outer edges and in the farm fields north of the refuge. There’s an online brochure and map with suggested viewing locations.

“Just seeing the birds fly over and hearing their wings fly over, and seeing the sun under their wings, it's just really special,” Kleinhans said. “You don't get tired of seeing it in person.” 

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