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Project to track pelicans continues late researcher's work

Posted: Thursday, August 09, 2001

CORRELL, Minn. (AP) -- The banders met at 5 a.m. to a picturesque scene of scooped-mouthed birds flying over a cool Marsh Lake as the sun slowly inched above the horizon.

They work in the chill of morning because the birds get stressed in hot weather.

The banders travel by boat out to islands around Marsh Lake where the pelicans are breeding this year. Once the volunteers for the Marsh Lake Pelican Project land, tranquility is broken. The birds, traveling in groups of hundreds, surround visitors with constant hawking.

The banders crouch down to avoid scaring the birds and then close in on a group from all sides. Once a group of pelicans is herded, the banders sift past birds too small to fit a band. For older birds, banders take the pelican's left leg and use pliers to secure the metal bands with serial numbers on them.

They work amid the smell of bird regurgitation or crawfish, odors that stay with the 20 volunteers long past their departure from the islands.

However, the banders believe in the cause, and in less than four hours they have used the 1,500 bands they brought with them to the island.

White pelicans nesting in Minnesota were nonexistent from 1878 to 1968. But a project started in 1972 by the late Alfred Grewe Jr., a biology and wildlife professor at St. Cloud State University, tracked the growing population of white pelicans and analyzed their ecosystem.

Grewe died in January and this recent weekend was the first time the group of volunteers gathered without its founder to carry out his work.

Jeff DiMatteo, a state Department of Natural Resources employee, took over Grewe's state banding license this year and organized the project. DiMatteo does not want Grewe's legacy to be forgotten.

''I think he didn't want to take credit for the things he did. But I don't think there will be another one like him coming along,'' said DiMatteo, who has been involved in the project since he was a student in the 1980s and Grewe was his biology adviser.

Three weeks before Grewe's death, DiMatteo knew something was wrong. His former adviser had lost a lot of weight and was walking with a cane. He later found out that Grewe had bone cancer.

In one of their last conversations Grewe told DiMatteo that he hoped when the time came, someone would keep the pelican project going.

''I don't know what the future's going to hold,'' DiMatteo said, adding, ''he did want this to continue.''

DiMatteo is happy to return the favor this year, since Grewe worked tirelessly to help him and other students in their education. He described Grewe as a humble person, who never wanted attention for all the personal sacrifices he made for his profession.

The birds have a tendency to move to an island that suits them. The pelicans have moved from their original island in the 1970s because it became too small for the increasing population. This year, the young pelicans were found at a different island from last year because flooding forced them to find drier land.

The first year of the project, an entire class -- 10 birds -- was banded on islands of the lake near Correll in western Minnesota. Today, the colony produces about 10,000 birds each year.

The bird banding allows biologists to track the birds, which have been found as far away as Oklahoma, Texas, Florida and Mexico.

Tracking allows biologists to note things such as disease outbreaks, which could indicate changes in vegetation and water conditions.

The smells of crawfish and bird droppings are among the occupational hazards of the work. But to David Trauba, wildlife manager for the state DNR, the temporary inconveniences are well worth the long-term affect of the project.

He has been banding pelicans along the lake for eight years, and was glad to see that people, including Grewe's former students, returned for the project as well. He also said it was important other students were joining the project for the first time.

''You need that mixture of experience,'' Trauba said.

He said this prepares for the next generation of banders. Having new students participate also fits Grewe's philosophy that the banding should be a learning opportunity.

''(Al) worked very hard to make sure his students got experience,'' Trauba said.

This year, four students from St. Cloud State University were banding pelicans for the first time.

''It's great field experience,'' said senior Melissa Olson, who had never banded an animal before. ''It's important practice for everything we're going to be doing.''

In addition to initiating the pelican project, Grewe was known for being able to gather students and professionals throughout the state for the cause.

''They were all going (bird banding) because of Al,'' DiMatteo said. ''Everyone wanted to be around him. He had a tremendous amount of information in his head.''

DiMatteo said the continuation of the project went fairly well this year, but Grewe's presence could never be replaced.

He said he missed a few details that Grewe would not have if he were in charge. When one volunteer cut himself while banding, DiMatteo again remembered his mentor.

''I forgot to bring Band-Aids,'' DiMatteo said. ''He would have brought Band-Aids.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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