Notes from the Island
June 1999


It was such a disturbing sound that I went immediately to investigate. A lone gosling was swimming upstream in the middle of the slough between. the Island and the towpath, obviously lost and screaming for its Mother in a most pathetic way. It was heartbreaking to observe, as several times he would come to the Island and walk up a little way before returning to the water. Surely keeping to the water was a survival trait, as he never stopped squealing and soon several crows were attracted. After a while the crows started diving on the gosling, who had learned to duck by diving below the water. The gosling would always surface screaming, and it seemed a sure bet he would tire before the crows, who were taking turns. Fortunately, three mature geese swam by, making for Ruppert's Island, and although the crows then gave up, the gosling was last seen following but falling further and further behind, and mindful of the juvenile eagles seen a little earlier by Johnna Robinson, I was sure I would never see that gosling again.

Later in the day I went with Kim Stanton to feed the goose nesting in the root ball of the fallen sycamore. The geese have now been spoiled by Members following this last busy weekend, because although they usually ignore me, last Monday morning as I came out the door the first time, every goose on the Island started for me!!! But as Kim and I started to edge closer to the nest, the goose became agitated in a way we had never seen, shrieking alarm in such a way that papa goose came belligerently flying in. We backed off confused, as many had fed the nesting goose... until we saw it... a black serpent's head slithering into the nest. It was Blackie, the Island's own 5-foot black snake. Well of course there was only one thing to do, and by the time we got up and into position by the nest, it was a sight to behold. Mama goose had abandoned the nest, and thus the five eggs could be seen... with Blackie latched on to one. The sight should have been alarming, but was instead comical... for you see... that was one optimistic snake. I mean, do you know how large a goose egg is? Blackie could only get his mouth partially onto, not around, the smallest end, unhinged jaw and all. Any impulse to see what might happen was quickly squelched by the mounting goose ruckus, so Blackie was detached and removed to the end of the Island.

It was dusk of this same day when the sound was heard again... the lost gosling had survived many hours and had returned and was sailing and screaming down the middle of the slough. This time there were families of geese on the Island, and spotting one he quickly came ashore and tried to join other goslings near the ferry. But sad to say, he was driven off by the Mother goose... truly heartrending to watch. I had turned to go to the house for bread when the timbre of his screaming changed and turning I saw him streak across the lawn and through the canoe shed. When I reached the other side of the Island I saw him nestled next to his Mom. So much real life drama you might think... but hey... just another day on your island.

Wild Canada geese usually live five to ten years, although in protected environments they may live 20 to 40 years. They can weigh between six and fifteen pounds, and adults eat about half a pound of food a day. During their mid-summer moulting, they shed their flight feathers and are unable to fly for a month. This is already starting to happen on the Island.

Migrant geese begin breeding when they are three or four years old, and if possible will nest in the same spot every year. The female will lay four to eight eggs which will hatch in about 28 days. Weighing three to -four ounces when born, the goslings can reach seven pounds after eight weeks. The geese that come to Maryland tend to come from the Ungava peninsula area of Quebec Province of Canada.

On the fallen sycamore tree can be seen a large hole on the down river side, a hole that must once have been 50 feet up and similar to many that can be seen when the leaves are down, as sycamore trees seem to be a tree of choice for critter housing. Investigating what I took to be an empty "house," I found the cavity to be huge on the inside of the trunk, extending a couple of feet on each side of the opening. I also found it to be full of water, which was a surprise, no doubt because of its new orientation after the tree had fallen. Suddenly certain squirrel behavior became understandable, as I now realize that squirrels I have seen entering only half way into north facing holes have probably been drinking from their own tree top ponds'. One can imagine entire microcosms hidden away in the tree tops.

Last month's observation that the lack of flooding this last year has caused the Island to re-seed itself has more evidence: poison ivy is popping up everywhere. We are killing it as soon as it is seen, so report any to the Caretaker. This is even more true of kudzu. I have left some kudzu that has sprouted near the wooden walkway, so test yourself to see if you can recognize it when you come, and feel free to pull up any you may see on the Island. Also different this year is the amount of vegetation both in the water and near the water's edge, more examples of the on going recovery from the '96 floods... and a reminder of just how much of an impact such a flood can have and how long the return to normalcy can take.

One recently over-heard conversation worth passing along was that of a Member suggesting to children going off to college that they should make the effort to get on the waiting list soon in light of the long wait. Members should be reminded that when your children grow up and leave home they lose their right to come to the Island except as guests. There are of course many instances of different generations of the same family having Membership, but in times gone by it did not require the same amount of pre-planning that is necessary today.

-- Doc Taliaferro, Sycamore Island Caretaker