Notes from the Island
April 2000


The other afternoon I was sitting in the area known as the Caretaker's Yard... that area just below our great room... engrossed in my continuing study of the impact of goose feet on emerging trout lilies... trying not to upset them by following too closely for my observations... when our kitty Miss "T" came down the little slope from the front door. This is her first Spring, a wondrous event to coincide with her adolescence and filled with new experiences of every stripe. For some weeks she and the geese have been working out their relationship... they with a wary eye and she with great enthusiasm in discovering that birds could get so big. At first she would go bounding out with the unpent energy of new Spring... her sudden movements causing the geese to start and sometimes to be startled into jumping back with a flurry of wings. So much fun to get them riled and squawking. But they quickly got her number, and began to hold their ground, and so until now there has been wary dance as they felt out the boundary of each other's personal space... studying each other and then ignoring each other with practiced nonchalance... Miss "T" stalking and playing without actually ever charging and threatening except by maneuver. Great play for young cats... but nothing too serious. But of course everything is serious in Goose World, and it has seemed as though the geese have begun to develop the disdain that all wild things instinctively feel towards those lucky, privileged members of the animal kingdom that eat from cans... as though recognizing that the lack of seriousness indicates the killer instinct of hunger is missing.

And so, as I sat in the middle of the yard and Miss "T" made as if to come to me, I prepared to watch the dance. Instead, I was witness to the humiliating education of a young cat... her world changed forever. No more of this walking around each other warily. The geese attacked! In matters of goose territoriality it is mostly the male goose that toes it up. But in this case it was the female that charged with single-minded determination every time Miss "T" tried to enter the yard. And she tried to get to my chair from almost every direction, backing and making great detours. But no matter how far across the yard the female goose might be, she would come charging and honking and flying across to deny any part of the yard to Miss "T," and at one point chased her ignominiously back up the hill to the safety of the Clubhouse steps. Obviously we are close to nesting time and any possible interloper must be made aware of the proper order of things. Such humiliation for such a young and previously undaunted kitty, who now seems to devote her energies to little bugs instead of birds bigger than she is. I have wondered if this might be the reason our large Czech cat, Barney, never comes out during the day when the geese roam the Island: fear of humiliation.

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This is a good time to publish the present policy on when the Club/Island is closed because of high water conditions. These conditions should be known by the Members and therefore should be defined clearly and publicly... and be reviewable. The Club Captain is always informed and consulted about Club closings. The Island is closed when the water level at the Little Falls gauge is above 5 feet and rising. This is the level at which the river is declared hazardous to recreational use by NOAA, and thus an insurance liability threshold. Club canoes may not be used above this level. The ferry becomes increasingly difficult to operate above this level, and should not be operated even by the regular Caretaker without the high water safety chains, which are extra chains added to the regular safety chains to allow the trailing end of the ferry to swing around further down river and farther from the safety line. Above 5 feet it is increasingly difficult to get onto the ferry from the towpath landing, especially when the river starts to rise over the ferry landing on the Island, and thus only wet or booted feet come onto the Island. When rising, the river can do so suddenly and quickly, and thus go from 5 to 5.5 feet in a couple of hours.

The Caretaker may open the Island when the river level is below 5.5 feet and falling. The river frequently rises quickly but falls slowly. The limiting factor here is usually the wind, as a brisk up-river wind can blow even a burly ferry person off the ferry rope when combined with high, fast water. The Captain has decided that only the regular Caretaker is authorized to operate the ferry above 5 feet, and therefore the Island is closed any Sunday the water level is above the hazardous level. This decision has been reinforced by previous attempts to allow substitute caretakers to operate the ferry between 5 and 5.5 feet... and the several incidents that have resulted. River levels and forecasts can be monitored on the back page of the Washington Post Metro section.

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The realization that some sort of critical mass had been reached occurred Saturday when it was suddenly apparent that the grass was gaining on the geese. There is now more green than bare brown on the lawn... most things have their heads up at least... and people can now, bring their clueless feet on the Island without doing irreparable harm. The bluebells are bluing nicely, maybe only 20% so far, but even so it is quite a show. We will probably have an extended bluebell season this year because most are only an inch or so out of the ground. Actually we do not have a lawn, and will not until June. What we do have is an amazing wildflower garden resulting from the re-seeding that was possible because there have been no floodwaters over the lawn now for two years. I wish some of you old-timers would come down here and put your eyes on this and tell me how it compares with lawns before the '96 floods. I remember the first year we were here, a gentleman came down and expressed disappointment at the paucity of dog toothed violets, when in fact they seemed to be strewn everywhere. But this year they have appeared in the lawn by the zillions... and so too the regular violets, the Dutchman's breeches, the stars of Bethlehem, the marsh marigold, the Solomon's seal, a few so far unidentified, and of course the Spring beauties. Your Caretaker will again resist all pressure to mow anything except paths until they have all set seed.

Also the Island now has its first nesting goose... the location of said eggs to be kept secret to protect them from frivolous Members and unaccompanied children. However, our main goose couple is again constructing a nest in the root ball of the overturned sycamore tree near the Captain's float, and we will again this year have a "public" nest for everyone to see. There seem to be fewer geese this year, perhaps only 6 regular couples on the Island, and perhaps fewer than last year spending the night at the foot of Ruppert's Island. It could be that the geese feel that the neighborhood is being run down by the crowds at Hotel Cormorant there.

Your Caretaker was reflecting on these things and selfishly considering any justification to keep this announcement secret and the crowds at bay, when a cowbird landed and ran across the lawn. Of course... that was it... there are not yet any robins, the traditional sign... ergo the announcement must be postponed. The thought had only just fully formed before the first robin of the year landed and ran across the yard in characteristic fashion. So there you have it... I am commanded from above to tell you... get yourselves down here!

-- Doc Taliaferro, Sycamore Island Caretaker