Notes from the Island
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
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
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