Notes from the Island
October 1989


I saw a dead river otter up on Rupperts last Spring. I know this is old news, but my identification was uncertain until a week ago when I bought a new book on mammals and compared its photograph of a river otter with the slide I had taken.

Last May I was canoeing up the Maryland side of Rupperts after a flood when I spotted a large, furry animal lying on the bank. At first I assumed it was a beaver which had not noticed me, but as I approached quietly, I saw that the tail was very different and that the animal was dead. I then thought it might be a river otter and I was very excited. I rushed back to Sycamore and picked up my camera and a simple book on mammals. After looking through the book I decided that the animal was probably a dead woodchuck, but I went back and photographed the body anyway. Within a few days the river rose again and carried off the evidence.

Last week I bought a better mammal book and checked it against the slide I had taken. A closer look at the tail and the hind legs convinces me that it was indeed a river otter. Now I wonder how many more otter are around and if maybe some of the animals I thought were beaver swimming in the water were actually otters.

I haven't seen any water mammals recently, but I have spotted a large number of turtles in the river. The Park Service has been draining this section of the canal for repairs and I think the turtles are trekking across the towpath. Also, the water may cool faster in the canal than in the river. In any case, a painted turtle with a yellow striped neck and a red underbelly now basks regularly on a log in the northeast swamp.

On some cold mornings recently, the frosty air over the warmer river has formed a thick mist over the Potomac. The canoe pool tells a story of setting out one foggy morning for the Virginia shore and paddling vigorously for fifteen minutes, only to find that the shore that loomed up out of the mist was Sycamore Island at the exact spot they had departed from.

Upstairs by the door there is a 1931 Picture Map of Sycamore Island which depicts the island before it was devastated by the flood of 1936. I've always been intrigued by the owl that sits in a tree at the southern end of Sycamore on this map, because I haven't seen any owls here. However, Holly and I went bicycling above Great Falls a few weeks ago and Holly sighted an owl as it flew into the woods and perched on a branch. Unfortunately, we didn't have our binoculars or bird books with us, but even at a distance those birds are big and impressive.

At the last work session David Lyles and I moved a large slab of rock that had slid down and blocked the drainage for the path down from the Parkway. With pipes and crowbars we levered the boulder over the side and watched it roll downhill. We were congratulating ourselves on a job well done when we were attacked by a horde of angry yellow jackets, whose nest had clearly just been destroyed by the rolling boulder.

I swam yesterday, but the water was chilly and that may have been my last dip of the season. The white snakeroot and some kind of aster is blooming, but most of the flowers have dried up. The leaves are just starting to turn. I'll probably mow the lawn one more time and then put the mower away for the season. After that we can bring out the rakes.

-- Peter Jones, Sycamore Island Caretaker