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Reese Lukei, Jr.

October 3, 2017

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

(Photo: Reece rescuing a bald eagle nestling after nest fell out of a tree at Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge)

One half hour before dawn we walked the trail in darkness with no conversation, placed the supply of lure birds behind the blind and began the work of setting up the trapping station.  A strong cold front the day before had resulted in a push of raptors into the lower Delmarva and we knew that birds would be roosting in the shrubs around us.  They would soon be out and hunting for breakfast.  The front had continued through the night, the air was crisp and full of the electricity that would bring more waves of raptors through the day. Reese fixed a pigeon to the high pole and a starling to the low pole, set the bow traps and checked all of the pull lines while Marian and I opened the mist nets and arranged the equipment within the blind.  The site was of Reese’s design, reflecting his trapping style and years of tinkering to improve efficiency.  It was now a fine, hand-made instrument that could be played on demand.

We sat in the blind squinting out into the dim for any movement until a Cooper’s hawk circled out to the west.  Reese immediately turned the bird with a single pull of the pigeon, letting it resettle, then drew the bird across the site and into the central mist net with the starling. The ice was broken.  Over the next two hours we processed 25 birds as quickly as we could manage, alternating between retrieving and processing birds while keeping the site open for incoming.  By 10:30 the stream began to slack and we had reached the midday doldrums.  Reese turned on an obscure concerto on the boom box hanging in the blind and began to conduct with vigor, summoning the French horns and violins to the lead and then driving the entire orchestra to a dramatic climax.  The piece ended with a peregrine floating over the site.  She glanced down at the pigeon but turned her nose up, a sure sign that she had dined elsewhere.  We trapped through the day, catching mostly accipiters but also two late merlins, two early red-tails, and one cautious harrier.  We closed the day as we began with two Coops hunting for a meal as they settled into the shrubs for the night.  In all, more than 50 raptors banded.

The dawn to dusk schedule was a hallmark of Reese’s effort, running the trapping site for 20 years as a research associate of The Center for Conservation Biology.  During that time, he banded more than 10,000 raptors, documenting the recovery of eastern peregrines, a changing of the guard between Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, the passage phenology of several species, and many other details of raptor migration ecology.

Those of us who work in the conservation industry eventually have to confront the big question – Why are we doing this?  Reese never seemed to struggle with this dilemma.  Reese retired early as a partner in an accounting firm not to end a career but to begin his life’s work.  Many of us retire to focus on ourselves with a sprinkling of service.  We volunteer enough to ease our good-citizen minds but not so much that it cramps our golf schedule.  Reese retired to spend his life in service.  Not just to bird conservation but to making the broader community better.  He has lived the past 30 years working through an endless list of good acts.  His dedication has exemplified what it means to be a global citizen.

Reese’s work has focused on three enduring passions including hiking, conservation, and people.  He has hiked in all 50 states and in more than 70 countries. He has completed the entire Appalachian Trail and 1,500 miles of the American Discovery Trail.  Reese has not just hiked trails, but has established, designed, built, and maintained them, as well as served on the boards of many trail organizations.  He was the co-founder and national coordinator for the American Discovery Trail for 12 years, testifying before congress and helping to get the trail established.  He has received many awards for his trail work including, in recent months, a lifetime achievement award from the National Trails System and a lifetime service award from the American Discovery Trail Society.  I suppose that both the work and the awards reflect the fact that Reese has never shied away from taking on the big roles when called upon.

Reese has always had a passion for raptors, an affliction that wife Melinda has called “an incurable disease.”  His introduction to banding was with famed migration banders Walter Smith, Charlie Hacker, Mitchell Byrd and Fred Scott.  He began trapping passage peregrines in the late 1970s in an effort that would expand to include running the Wise Point Raptor Station, breeding-season osprey, and bald eagle banding.  He has monitored nesting osprey and bald eagles in the urban areas of lower Tidewater, Virginia for decades, assisting with the state-wide efforts conducted by CCB.  In recent years as the populations have grown, this has become an all-consuming effort during the breeding season.  Reese has volunteered for an estimated 30,000 hours on planning, construction, and maintenance projects for national wildlife refuges and national parks across the country.  This lifelong commitment to these properties has resulted in many awards and acknowledgments over the years.  

Reese never met a stranger.  Beyond the trail work and raptor monitoring, his most enduring legacy will be his dedication to and passion for bringing people closer to nature.  He has used his own passion for nature to infect others with the incurable disease and by doing so has recruited others to the conservation cause.  He has rarely refused a speaking request and has given over 700 public talks about birds and trails.  In short, he has shown up on game day whenever the call has gone out.  He ran the commentary for the Norfolk Botanical Garden Eagle Cam and continues to operate the eagle blog for CCB.  For many people, their first introduction to raptors or to conservation service has been through Reese.  He has been a tireless ambassador for nature.

The day in the trapping blind and many others echo a general message of success.  If you are going to do something then do it well, with passion and style.  The answer to the big question that Reese seems to have always known is that we work in conservation to leave the world a better place for other species and by association ourselves.  The Center for Conservation Biology wants to join many other organizations in thanking Reese for his lifelong commitment to bring people and wildlife together, and for raising the awareness of conservation issues and making the world a better place.  Thanks, Reese.


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