Stravers, who lives most of the year in Harpers Ferry, Iowa, conducts bird-nesting inventories for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, Yellow River State Forest, and other environmental groups and agencies. His work has resulted in much of the region encompassing Yellow River State Forest, Effigy Mounds National Monument, the Upper Mississippi National Fish & Wildlife Refuge, and Pikes Peak being designated a 35,000-acre Globally Important Bird Area (IBA) in 2014.
Parking where the road ends fifty yards from the overlook, we swish through fallen leaves till we emerge at the cliff-face with its view clear to the east, save for one tenacious old cedar clinging to the limestone edge. “That gnarly old dog, how long do you think he’s been here?” Jon rasps. Stravers, with a headful of unruly gray hair, rumpled outdoor clothing, and cargo pockets filled to the brim, looks at home in these woods.
Before us lies the 35-foot wing-spanned stone raptor, its left wing a few dozen feet from the overlook. It looks much lighter than its rocky weight, as if it might take flight at a moment’s notice.
The spacious forest is both home and migratory haven to a wide range of birds, including coopers hawks, scarlet tanagers, and Jon Stravers’ favorites, the red shouldered hawk and cerulean warbler.
Stravers’ bird inventories, for example, have identified 190 territories of the cerulean warbler, which is in 75% decline nationwide but thriving in the Driftless. The Effigy Mounds-Yellow River IBA provides habitat for over 100 bird species, including tropical migrants that seasonally inhabit the area. The IBA also includes nesting sites of rare and reintroduced raptors like the peregrine falcon.
Across the river, Wyalusing State Park is included in a separate Wisconsin IBA program, adding to the overall bird sanctuary. But, says Jon, “The birds don’t pay any attention to political boundaries, and I try to ignore some of that as well.”
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On our way to the stone raptor, Jon stopped to point out the 30-inch diameter cottonwoods, ancient oaks and black walnuts that his cerulean warblers live among. Their choice of tree “perhaps has something to do with tree structure and topography–open spacing in the upper branches,” Jon said, exercising his Audubon thinking. Then Jon engaged his mystical side: “Or perhaps it could be the cerulean recognizing the wisdom of an ancient tree.”
Cerulean warblers migrate to the Driftless Area from Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and the northern Amazon. Jon marvels at the mystery: “How do they find their way over 3000 miles, a forest bird crossing the Gulf of Mexico trusting the compass in their heart and the elders of their clan?”
The cerulean warblers usually arrive around May 5. In May and June, as early as 4:30 a.m. Jon is at the Yellow River Forest or nearby to be in the best location when first light arrives. He has been tracking about 200 ceruleans in the region, learning where they nest and how they defend their territories. “They talk differently when they court, when the eggs are laid, and when their chicks are hatched,” Jon explains. After the young reach adolescence, the parents stop singing and the family unit blends into the surrounding clan of warblers. They leave Yellow River by the end of August to return south.
Jon is as much caught up in the mystery as the science of migrating birds. “I’m trying to figure out what draws them in, what brings them back.” The mystery, for Jon at least, largely resides in the Driftless landscape, particular the region encompassing the Yellow River State Forest and nearby Effigy Mounds National Monument.
“Something happened to me where I first visited the bird effigies at Effigy Mounds,” he says, describing the nearby national monument along the Mississippi bluffs that protects almost 200 Native American mounds, including 30 in the shapes of bears and birds. “I loved that view, that feeling, that remoteness when nobody else is up there. There began a longing within me to be close to that place. Though I knew little about the people who built them, I felt connected to them.”
In 2015 Stravers first began building a stone raptor on a cliff overlook. His current raptor sits atop Andy Mountain near Harper’s Ferry. On his regular travels along the forest roads, he picks up fist- to lap-sized rocks and hauls them to the overlook, where he places them, stone by stone, in the outline or interior of the growing bird. Like the mound-builders who placed heart-stones collected from far away at the center of their effigies, Jon has also collected rocks from Idaho, where his daughter and grandchildren live, and added them to the raptor.
He has built similar stone raptors in northeast Iowa, Idaho, New Mexico, Arizona, and Florida in places where he senses a sacred landscape.
Today Jon pulls a new stone from the back of the car to place on the wing. Some stones, he says, are placed for symbolic value (such as the red stone at the raptor’s heart), while the rest are placed for the shape and fitting of the rock.
“I come here to become centered,” Jon reflects after placing the stone. “We all need ‘spiritual exercise’ like we need physical exercise. It only works if you consistently practice it.”
So we place a new stone on the effigy, turn back to the car, and descend through the gray and golden light, giving space for the spirit of the raptor to take flight.