His granddaughter calls him "Hawk Daddy" and he moonlights as a folk musician. He recognizes bird calls so precisely that he knows -- by nickname -- who is making them.
Meet Driftless Area bird researcher Jon Stravers, a free-spirited zealot who spends countless days on the Mississippi River and its backwaters immersing himself in observation and thought.
He has been tracking red-shouldered hawks for more than 30 years and his data on cerulean warblers in the region helped certify Iowa's first globally important bird area.
Stravers' research home is the woodsy, watery region where Minnesota's southeast corner converges amid blufflands with Iowa and Wisconsin. His keen insights as a self-described "river dog" helped Minnesota DNR win an active $1.55 million grant to restore lost fish habitat and patches of floodplain forest between the tiny river towns of Reno and Brownsville.
Over the next several years, the so-called Reno Bottoms project will dredge sediment from a backwater bay to improve fishing. In turn, crews will dump the silt on an island now covered by invasive Reed canary grass. The transfer will enable the planting of native tree species that have been lost to ever-rising water. Funding came from the Legislature as recommended by the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council.
According to Hawk Daddy and others, changes to hydrology are robbing the region of its rich diversity of plant life and wildlife. The Reno Bottoms project will benefit bluegill, crappie and bass populations within a fishing area of upper Pool 9. Shore birds, amphibians and other critters also will benefit from the enhancement.
"He's a phenomenal resource," said Dan Dieterman, Mississippi River habitat specialist for the Minnesota DNR. "His love of birds and the places they live is truly infectious."
Dieterman recalled a chance encounter with Stravers at the back end of a hidden slough in the middle of Reno Bottoms. When the two stumbled into each other, Stravers was listening for birds. They were both annoyed by the disturbance of seeing someone else until they realized they knew each other.
"I think we were both surprised to see someone else in such a remote location," Dieterman said.
Stravers, a Vietnam War veteran who sailed into the Mekong Delta on the morning he turned 21 years old, said his sojourns on the river aboard his 17-foot, flat-bottomed boat aren't always for work. All it takes is a good moonrise to lure him to the water, or any number of inner feelings.