By Mary Reid Barrow
This week at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Reese Lukei was in the middle of accepting the 2022 Wildlife Advocate Award from Katie Webb, who coordinates the Virginia Beach Winter Wildlife Festival.
Reese looked up in the sky, stopped his remarks abruptly, and said, “A merlin!” Off in the distance, way off in the distance, a tiny dot that probably only he could identify as that small falcon, flew by.
But you wouldn’t expect much less from the man who was, is and forever will be our go-to expert on raptors,whether little falcon or giant eagle.
Reese’s Wildlife Advocate Award was announced last night at the Wildlife Festival’s keynote speaker event which was a virtual program. I felt so honored to have the award named after me when it was first given two years ago after I retired from the Virginian-Pilot. But deep down, it nagged at me that I wasn’t worthy of such an award unless Reese, who taught me most everything I know about raptors, was on that list too.
For years, I wrote about wildlife for the paper and Reese was always my go-to person for information, as he also was for everyone else. I wrote one story about three decades ago, which I always think of as a highlight in the news about the bald eagle comeback from the effects of DDT.
Two eagles in a mating dance, their talons locked, were caught by gust of wind and plummeted into the middle Atlantic Avenue. Fortunately all cars came to a screeching halt. A brave Samaritan put a blanket over the two birds, carried them over to the Feeder Road and untangled their talons.
By the time I got there from my home nearby, the dazed, but unharmed, birds were walking around. One by one , they flew off.
At the time, the only known pair of bald eagles that had returned to the area, had a nest at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Naturally I called Reese right way for advice. He got in touch with the refuge. The eagles were not on their nest but returned in the afternoon. From the timing, Reese and the refuge figured this was the same pair that had made their romantic plunge that morning.
It proved to be a great story with headlines like “Two eagles fell out of love” and ‘Breaking up is hard to do. “
And it was the start of a lot of eagle writing for me, including more stories of eagles falling out of love, serious eagle watching for bird lovers here in Virginia Beach, and for sure a huge increase in calls for Reese’s help as he began to document the bald eagle return.
Whether an eagle in distress, a new nest or a newly arrived eagle, they all became Reese’s “responsibility.” Remember the ongoing saga of the nest at Norfolk Botanical Garden nest , for one?
That’s not to mention Reese’s long time work documenting and banding ospreys here, his volunteer works at state parks and refuges around the country, building everything from trails, to fishing docks to pole barns.
You can hardly say Reese Lukei without saying eagle, osprey, hawk or trails.
Three years ago, I was part of a group, as was LRNow, that honored Reese with The Reese F. Lukei , Jr. Raptor Trail , a network of trails in parks and refuges in the area dedicated to Reese for decades of volunteer work with raptor conservation, wildlife education and nature trails. You can see the start of the refuge trail in the top photo and you can learn more about Reese’s trails at https://www.vbgov.com/government/departments/parks-recreation/parks-trails/Pages/raptor-trail.aspx
That and the Wildlife Advocate Award he received last week are among many local and national awards Reese has received for his good works.
Last week when I left the award ceremony at the refuge, a big old bald eagle was perched on an osprey platform off the entrance road, a platform that Reese had worked on installing years ago.
I like to think that it was an offspring of those first bald eagles that had their amorous adventure on Atlantic Avenue, saluting Reese from the eagle world.
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