Wildlife & Habitat

Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge

  • Sandhill Cranes

    Sandhill Crane

    Refuge wetlands provide habitat for up to 50 pairs of breeding sandhill cranes each year. The unison call of these tall, stately birds is thrilling to hear in spring. By mid-summer, observant visitors may be treated to the sight of one or two rusty-colored ‘colts’ following their parents and learning to forage on insects and other invertebrates. 

    In late September, migrating flocks begin to arrive from the north. From mid-October to early November, the refuge hosts thousands of cranes that roost overnight in refuge's shallow wetlands, leaving during the day to find food in nearby crop fields. The peak number of cranes in late October or early November typically exceeds 10,000 individuals and is a sight to behold! The refuge offers self-led and guided opportunities for viewing.

  • Blanding’s Turtle

    Blanding's Turtle

    The Blanding’s turtle, a Minnesota State threatened species, needs both wetland and upland habitats to complete its life cycle. As they emerge from wetlands in spring, a period of basking in the sun helps to increase their body temperature, which is needed for egg production.

    In early summer, the female may travel up to one mile into surrounding sandy uplands to lay her 6 to 15 eggs. After a two-month development period, young Blanding’s turtles hatch and emerge from nests in late summer or early fall. Blanding's turtles are easily identified by their domed upper shell and bright yellow chin and throat.

  • Red-headed Woodpecker

    Red-headed Woodpecker

    The red-headed woodpecker is a bird of the oak savanna, excavating nests in dead trees and dead limbs high off the ground. Although often occurring in loose colonies or clusters, the birds remain territorial and do not cooperate with other pairs in the area. When feeding, they will fly to catch insects in the air or on the ground. They also eat seeds, fruits and berries, and gather acorns to store.

    Once abundant, their populations have declined drastically, mostly due to habitat loss caused by removal of dead trees with large limbs. They also lose nesting habitat to European starlings, and sometimes die from collisions with cars when swooping low over roads while foraging.

  • Trumpeter Swan

    Pair of adult trumpeter swans swimming on a wetland by Donna Crider

    Trumpeter swans are North America's largest waterfowl species. Once common throughout the prairies and parklands of Minnesota, they were extirpated from the state in the early 1900s. Extensive reintroduction efforts from the 1960s to the early 2000s led to their conservation success story. Breeding individuals of these large, majestic birds now number close to 20,000 in Minnesota alone.

    The refuge is home to several nesting pairs of trumpeter swans. In early June, cygnets are found feeding in wetlands with both parents. Large groups of non-breeding individuals also gather on the refuge throughout the summer and fall. Listen for their distinctive "trumpeting" sound.

  • Oak Savanna

    Oak Savanna

    Oak savanna was a dominant habitat found throughout the Midwest and across much of the refuge prior to European settlement. Today it is considered 'globally imperiled,' with very little remaining on the landscape.

    Oak savanna is characterized by scattered individuals and clumps of oak trees growing with an understory of mixed-height grasses, wildflowers and shrubs, such as hazelnut or oak scrub. This fire-dependent ecosystem is maintained and restored by refuge staff using prescribed fire and other management tools.

  • St. Francis River

    Aerial photo of the St. Francis River winding through a green landscape spotted with darker green shrubs and trees

    The majority of the refuge lies within the St. Francis River watershed and the river itself winds through refuge lands. It provides a corridor of excellent riparian habitat for waterbirds, songbirds and mammals, including river otters and beavers. The refuge has a designated canoe route that visitors can use to access the river.

  • Wet Meadows

    Wet Meadow

    The refuge contains a variety of different types of wetlands. Wet meadows are a type often found between lakes, rivers and streams and upland habitats. They are typically covered with plants and usually only have standing water in the spring following snowmelt or during floods.

    Some woody plants may be scattered throughout wet meadows, but flowers, grasses and sedges dominate due to their increased tolerance for periodic flooding. Wet meadows provide valuable habitat for several species of birds, mammals and insects. They also play a key role in improving water quality and providing flood water retention.

  • Shallow and Deep Marshes

    Lakes and Marshes

    Marshes are home to a variety of emergent, floating and submergent species of aquatic plants, including cattails, bulrushes, wild rice, water-lilies, duckweed, water milfoil, smartweed and arrowheads. Deep marshes have permanent water and shallow marshes may only have water seasonally. Purple loosestrife is an invasive plant that threatens these wetlands.

    In the early 1900s, the St. Francis River basin was regarded as one of the finest wildlife areas in the state. Early European immigrants unsuccessfully attempted to farm the area by draining the marshy bottoms.

    The refuge was established to help restore these lost wetlands and part of this process included the creation of an impoundment system. This gravity-fed system of water control structures enables water levels to be raised or lowered by refuge staff. Periodic drawdowns encourage the establishment and spread of emergent aquatic plants and exposes mudflats that attract good concentrations of ducks, geese, waterbirds and shorebirds. Subsequent flooding on some pools improves access to plants such as wild rice.