Sandhill cranes congregate at refuge by the thousands

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Thousands of sandhill cranes are congregating in and around Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge near Zimmerman, as they prepare to continue their migration south.

There were 6,755 sandhill cranes counted on Friday, Oct. 26, according to refuge Visitor Services Manager Betsy Beneke.

“The birds appear to still be here in huge numbers,” Beneke said on Tuesday, Oct. 30.

The cranes likely came from the central provinces of Canada and from northern Minnesota, she said. After leaving Minnesota their next big “staging area” — an area where they rest and feed — is probably the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana. From there they will continue on to winter in Florida and parts of the sourtheastern United States, Beneke said.

The first cranes arrived this year at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area on Sept. 14 and 8,280 cranes were counted there on Oct. 23, according to the Jasper-Pulaski website. Cranes numbers are expected to peak there in late November or early December.

Meanwhile, while at the Sherburne refuge, the cranes’ typical daily pattern is to leave the refuge to forage in recently harvested corn fields during the day and return to the refuge area for the night.

One good dawn and dusk viewing area on the refuge is a hunter parking area on 25th Street, Beneke said. To get there go south a couple blocks on County Road 11 from Santiago, then turn east on 25th Street, which is a gravel road that dead ends in the parking lot.

To see cranes during the day Beneke recommends driving around on county and township roads in the Santiago, Duelm and Glendorado areas.

There are, however, no guarantees where large numbers of cranes may be spotted.

“People just have to keep in mind they’re birds, they have wings, they move,” Beneke said. “They’re not always in the same spot from one day to the next.”

The sandhill crane is among Minnesota’s largest bird species, standing about five feet tall and having a wingspan of nearly seven feet. Sandhill cranes are closely related to the federally endangered whooping crane, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.