Notes from the Island
September 1989


One of the white geese is missing. Earlier this Spring it was ostracized by its fellow fowl. I had to feed it separately, because the others chased it away. After the corn ran out at the beginning of the summer, the geese wandered off and occasionally I would see them foraging on the Virginia shore or swimming down by the dam. About two months ago I stopped seeing the lone white goose. It was a little bolder than its compatriots. One time when our cat Fred sneaked up on the geese, the others waddled towards the river, but the lone white goose stood still and stared Fred down. The cat stopped six feet away and didn't dare go any closer. Maybe the goose will return when I start feeding corn again, but I suspect it died or moved on to greener marshes.

There appear to be half a dozen adolescent wood ducks that have stayed in the area. They are remarkably stupid and fearless for birds that are usually quite skittish. We have saved two from out of Fred's jaws. Yesterday Holly was having breakfast when the cat came trotting up the brick walk with a live wood duck between its teeth. Holly, wearing her nightgown, grabbed a broom and chased Fred through cobwebs and nettles down to the riverbank. As soon as the cat dropped the duck, it scampered into the water and out of harm's way.

There are a number of water birds this time of year. Of course there are plenty of great blue herons and green herons, but we have also seen a great egret, a snowy egret and a black-crowned night heron. Yesterday I watched a cormorant as it sat low in the river and then disappeared, diving underwater for five to ten seconds before resurfacing. Eventually it shook the water off its wings and flew away just barely skimming the surface of the river.

Today I watched an osprey feeding upstream from Ruppert's. It hovered in the air fifty feet above the Potomac and then dove for a fish in the river. The bird was not having much luck, so repeatedly it would shake off the water, rise into the air and try again.

Over the Labor Day Weekend Greg Super groomed the Sycamore Island Nature Trail at the northern end of the Island. If you start at the swimming float you pass Joe-Pye weed, blue Asiatic dayflower, bright purple iron weed, and yellow-flowered Jerusalem Artichoke. After stepping over a few fallen logs which washed up in the last flood you'll be in a patch of red cardinal flowers. Look around and you'll see black walnuts and hickory nuts which have fallen from nearby trees. On the riverbank there is a pile of freshwater clam shells that a raccoon has discarded. A little farther along you'll see pink swamp mallows blooming in the afternoon sunshine.

At the tip of the Island there is a stand of purple ageratum. The shrubs with the bright red berries are called spice bushes because the crushed leaves give off a pleasant fragrance. There are clusters of wild grapes on the vines climbing a dead sycamore tree here. If you look out into the northeast swamp you can see a wasp's nest the size of a volleyball hanging from a lowlying branch over the water. This is the nest the Nobles canoed into last month.

As you come down the eastern side of the Island you'll walk through a patch of Paw Paw trees. The green fruit is getting ripe and you can find some soft edible ones on the ground. The inside of the paw paw is yellow with black seeds and the fruit is very tasty. Kudzu vines are taking over the Maryland side of the Island, but the blue and purple flower is gorgeous. You can see the fallen petals on the ground and you can get a close view of the flower where the kudzu crosses the path near the fallen sycamore.

Immediately beyond the kudzu there is a patch of spotted touch-me-not or jewelweed. The Island has a lot of the pale touch-me-not, but this is the only stand of the spotted. The name derives from the seedpod which explodes when touched, ejecting the seed. The juice of the jewelweed is supposed to counteract the sting of nettles and the itch of poison ivy. As the trail skirts the riverbank you'll see an animal track which emerges from the undergrowth to your right and slides down the bank into the river. I don't know which animal it is, but the track is fairly recent.

The rest of the Island is also beautiful. Virgin's bower, bouncing bet, jewelweed, rose of sharon, and sweet pea are flowering near the volleyball court. Bleeding hearts, blue lobelia and fall crocuses are blooming in the wildflower garden near the screen porch. The weedpatch by the ferry landing boasts pink swamp mallows, jimsonweed, purple ageratum and yellow sneezeweed.

Summer is coming to an end. The vegetation is starting to die back; leaves have started to fall. The weather is beautiful today, but the blue skies and cool dry air hint of the autumn to come. If you want to get one last swim in, you better hurry.

-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker