Notes from the Island
February 1997


There is a spaciousness to the winter Island that is missed by those who come only in the warmer months when all is green and so very "close" as a result. No need to use binoculars so much then. But in the barren winter, line of sight is far ranging and multi-dimensional, with constant activity occurring at many focal point adjustments. Many secrets are now exposed to the casual observer. For instance, a squirrel home was revealed when they were seen to spend a morning taking fresh dry leaves up to a hole in the sycamore near the wooden walkway that the cables are attached to. One can view the opening only from NNE angle of the tree, about 60 feet up. And one dusk, from a vantage point on the deck, a pileated woodpecker was seen to disappear into a sycamore tree near the water at about 180 degrees on the compass rose. With great excitement, the Caretaker settled down to watch for the next hour to see if the woodpecker was just visiting and would leave (he did not) or would stay for the night, denoting a permanent residence. In fact, the Caretaker did not leave his post for several ringing phones, and those of you who might wonder what more important task or weighty pondering would keep the Caretaker from running to every ringing phone will surely understand. In fact, all are warned of the futility of expectation that any ringing phone will be answered an hour before or an hour after sunset.

One other thing about winter vistas is that it brings your neighbors close. Early on, while sitting on the deck one night, the Caretaker was absolutely shocked by the closeness of the lights of houses just across the river... which he did not remember from 5 years earlier. We are no longer alone. Those of you who do not enjoy cold leafless nights on the Island are perhaps not aware of this new phenomenon, but you are encouraged to check out the fall 1996 issue of River Scape, the Potomac Conservancy newsletter. There are before and after comparison pictures of the clearing away of trees below Little Falls and pictures of the clearing for a new house above Little falls. It has been the naturalistic isolation of Sycamore Island that has allowed us all to enjoy the unspeakably beautiful moments that are the real treasures of our lives. Every effort should be taken by the Membership to work to help preserve the natural scenic beauty of the river. In this sense we are all "Caretakers."

Such observations are enabled by one of the Caretakers most prized possessions: putrid yellow, hollofill super-insulated, bib overalls obtained from Wal Mart for about $40. Of course, these can only be worn when the weather is so bad or so cold that the Caretakers Wife can be assured no other human will see them. But great pleasure can be had by roaming the Island in all weather conditions and at all hours on beaver patrol. This is complimented by color co-ordinated rain gear given as a present by the Caretakers Wife, recommended as deluge proof by her brother the nautical captain, and for which she surely took out a bank loan. One dark and sleeting night the Caretaker started down the path in all his guaranteed warm and dry gear and with his newest toy: spectacle frames with side mounted lights for hands-free illumination for path navigation and ferry lock management. How smug, how invincible against the elements he felt... he laughed at the gods... just before his feet left him and he slid 10 feet leaving a mud gouge that can still be seen. This is reported because the timing of prideful thought and immediate retribution were statistically significant. What is that saying, "Pride goeth before the ...."

During the cold snap in mid-January the river froze solid between the Island and the towpath, and mostly to the Virginia side. But not enough for skating. It was amazing that even after temperatures rose above freezing it was 4 days before the ferry could be unstuck from the ice that still clung to the Island shoreline. During the freeze the beaver were extremely active on the Island, attacking 10 trees, mostly at the North end... and some of these trees the important large trees that serve as the first bulwark against erosion. For some reason the ice made the Island more attractive (more accessible?) as a feeding location. Each day beaver patrol turned up several trees that needed to be wrapped with wire, a total of 15 before activity slacked off. An ultra-sonic pest deterrent device has been purchased. It is battery powered, and thus portable, able to be moved around the Island to trouble spots. It also has a motion detector attuned to small mammals, so it can be set to activate only when necessary and thus will not be constantly emitting and annoying bats and other neighbors. It seemed to work against the attack on the tulip poplars reported in December (when a menacing Caretaker did not) but as the motion detector is functional only above freezing, it has been of no use lately.

As predicted by Peter, the geese left the Island for open water when it froze. Our lone white goose would return alone, without his gaggle. His size and mass make him king of the Island, but when they take to the air he seems to have trouble keeping up. He is rude and obnoxious, but he is in fact the one other permanent Island resident outside the Caretaker's family. We had named the two ducks Fred and Ginger, but since the thaw they have yet to return. Therefore, he is deserving of a name of his own, and a "Contest To Name The White Goose" is hereby announced. Children of all ages are invited to come meet the white goose and then submit names. A name will be chosen and announced in the July Islander.

Insects appeared again on the first thaw day after the big freeze. Everywhere! Obviously there is some connection with the water being liquid as opposed to overnight freezing temperatures. New moths were about and there was another mosquito attack in the Caretaker's quarters. Since arriving in November, the only time the ground has not been muddy has been when it has been frozen. What can they eat? Certainly the sap is already rising, as all of the trees the beaver have been feeding on have been oozing sap after the thaw from where they nibbled.

The birds continue to be a delight, albeit an increasingly expensive one. The feeders are always busy and the trees crowded with impatient birds waiting. Especially the chickadees and goldfinches. It has been unclear whether the Island houses the fattest chickadees on the East coast or a hundred of them. There is a new "deluxe" metal mesh feeder and a horizontal platform feeder (10" x 20") in addition to the two small feeders used mainly by the goldfinches. The goldfinches are particularly interesting to watch, as they are now beginning to change daily from brown to gold. While cleaning the two finch feeders one day, the excess thistle was poured onto the platform feeder. When the next day eight goldfinches were observed at this platform feeder, the thistle was excitedly replenished. Amazingly, the next day there were twelve, and accordingly, a serious pile of thistle was then put down. The following day a total of twenty-two (22) goldfinches were observed feeding at the three feeders at the same time. After a brief cost accounting analysis, your Caretaker is now looking for a night job.

One morning the Caretaker noticed a squirrel taking his delight at the new "deluxe" birdfeeder, actually curled and reclining around the bottom tray like some diva peeling grapes. Except this thief was plucking expensive "hopper mix" while the nearby tree was filling with loudly complaining birds. Still, because of a naive and misplaced perception of "cuteness," care was taken at first not to startle the squirrel, who pretended not to notice the human. Even when it was decided that the feed was too expensive for squirrels and a closer look could be taken, the squirrel continued to avoid looking at or acknowledging the now looming presence at the window. Looming is defined as 25 inches, eye to eye, since measured. So close in fact, that it could be seen that the squirrel was tearing up the wire mesh of the "very expensive" deluxe feeder, guaranteed indestructible to everything except direct nuclear detonation. The Caretaker commenced very sharp and very loud rapping at the window. Eyes locked, species to species, the squirrel munching away at the finest seeds fearlessly unperturbed, and the human helplessly and futilly bruising his knuckles on the window pane. When finally, a quiet attempt was made to open the window, the squirrel disappeared in a blur.

You are asked to consider, gentle readers, the sophisticated and cunning animal intelligence that implicitly understands the nature and esoteric qualities of "glass"... that can ignore the close, loud, and menacing behaviour of a much larger predator when protected by "glass"... and yet responds immediately to the soft, quiet sound of "sliding glass." In light of the previously reported behaviour of the Huge Beaver, clearly the threat to human pride and dominance on the planet is far more serious than earlier thought... a far ranging conspiracy involving perhaps the entire rodentia genus.

And finally, Big News: The pool table is newly refurbished and beautiful... newly covered... newly levelled... with new bumpers. Tryon Wells has procured new balls and a new cover to protect it. All are reminded that the standing rules state that "No persons under twelve years of age shall use the pool table except under the immediate supervision of a responsible adult; any person using the pool or ping pong tables shall return covers, balls, cues, bridge, rack, and ping pong paddles to their proper places."

Much effort has been given this month to putting down grass seed. After much research revealed that the rough-cut bluegrass "Sabre" was suitable for damp soil with shade, had seed too small to be eaten by the geese, and could be sowed until mid-January, the biggest problem became the time required to finish clearing leaves so the seed could be spread. Remember the low turnout during the fall workfest, when many chores did not get completed? The Caretaker is going to work the guilt factor early and big time to promote a big turnout for the Spring workfest, so get ready!!

-- Doc Taliaferro, Sycamore Island Caretaker