Holey Mysteries

It all began with a photo sent to me by a friend two days ago. “Any ideas? 8 inches wide. 20 yards from a bog,” he wrote. 

I asked him about tracks in the area, but other than deer, he saw none. He did, however, see two track makers–a fisher and a weasel. 

And so, I contacted a few other friends and invited them to join me on a quest to figure out what the hole was all about. 

We met at the designated location, determined it would probably be in our best interest to wear snowshoes rather than Micro-spikes, and set off to search for the hole and clues. 

But first, something else stumped us. Oh, wait. I wasn’t stumped. I knew it was sumac and a bird must have been munching on the seeds. But . . . I didn’t remember sumac having such long hairs and there certainly were strands associated with the droppings. 

The color, however, made it incredibly obvious. Sumac indeed. 

Until . . . 

it wasn’t! Corn on the cob? On ice? And then we remembered that there was a cornfield located directly across the road. So . . . that made sense. But, how did it get to the other side? We’d noticed plenty of turkey tracks. Would turkeys carry cobs of corn? Not the ones that visit my backyard on a daily (sometimes twice daily) mission to eat as much bird seed I’ve tossed on the ground as possible. They scratch about and eat whatever is available on the spot rather than carrying it–as far as the four of us knew anyway. 

Did the deer bring it across? Again, we’ve always seen them dine on site. And . . . we noticed that the cobs, and even occasional husks, were left within their prints, so the corn arrived after the deer. 

As we continued to look around, we began to see kernels in small piles everywhere. 

And with that, we suddenly spied something else that looked oddly familiar. 

The hole! Notice its spiral shape. Discernible tracks? No. Dirt? Yes. Hoar frost? Yes. Hmmmm . . . 

We looked around for signs. “So and So lives here” would have made it too obvious. But, we found hoar frost on an adjacent hole, which raised a few questions: 1. Were the holes connected? 2. Was a critter breathing within? 3. Or, because we were near the bog, was there warmer water below that was creating the frost? 

Then we found something none of us had ever seen before. A smattering of sawdust on the snow located about five feet from the hole. Scat? Upset stomach? Two of us got down with a loupe to take a closer look and came to no conclusions. 

As we continued to look around, we noticed that though there wasn’t a discernible track, it did seem that activity led to two hemlock trees.

And there were snipped off twigs cut at an angle below the trees, plus some comma-shaped scat. 

With that in mind, we returned to the hole in question. 

Bingo! There was a sign that clearly read “So and So lives here.” A quill! When I first looked at the photo the other day I’d suggested porcupine or fox. Porcupine it was. 

Within the hole which we could tell was deeper to the left, we spotted more quills. 

Mystery solved–almost, for we didn’t know about that smattering of sawdust. Porcupine scat consists of sawdust because their winter diet includes tree bark and needles. Did the animal have a bellyache? 

Our excitement at finding the hole wasn’t diminished by the unsolved portion of the story. And still, we continued to find corn cobs as we moved closer to the water in hopes of finding tracks. 

Indeed, there were some and we tried to figure out the pattern to determine what mammal had crossed the ice. 

But before taking a closer look, there was ice on the bog’s edge to admire and we each found artistic displays to our individual liking. 

Back to the tracks on the ice.

At first, with porcupine on my mind, I thought I recognized the pigeon-toed behavior. 

But my companions couldn’t see it. And then I realized that I was seeing a different pattern instead. Opposite diagonals became important in the overall look of two feet together. 

Studying that one pattern of a waddling animal, we soon realized another had crossed over it–in a leap and a bound. Do you see the intersection of the two in the middle of the photograph? 

And, there were a couple of corn cobs on the ice. 

It was all too enticing, and so we got up the gumption, threw risk to the wind, and stepped out. One of us, stepped onto all fours as she slid across, the better to distribute her weight. It also gave her a better view of the tracks. 

Another came forth with caution, though she admitted she’d hoped we’d go for it. 

Her husband was the smart one and he stood on shore–looking at tracks in the snow created by one of the critters we were examining on the ice. And ever ready to call for help should we need it. 

Back to the pattern–do you see three sets of two feet? In the lower set the diagonal is higher on the left and lower on the right. It switches with the middle set of prints. And goes back to the same with the upper set. 

Where debris had frozen into the impressions you can almost see the toes. The smaller, almost rounder right hand print is a front foot and the longer left hand print is the opposite back foot. That’s how it goes with a waddler such as this. 

We’d actually seen clear prints near where we’d parked and so we knew this mammal had been in the area–those baby hand-like prints belonged to a raccoon. Raccoon tracks and corn on the cob. Hmmmm. We were beginning to make some connections. 

With that figured out, we moved on to the next set of tracks and determined they belonged to a snowshoe hare–the larger front prints actually representing its back feet as they had landed after the front feet bounded forward. 

As we studied the hare track, we noticed lots of movement had previously been made by another critter and I’m going to go out on a limb to say based on its size and behavior that it was related to the next mystery we encountered. 

First, there was a hole around a couple of tree stumps and it was the layers of ice that drew our admiration. 

Right near it, however, was another frozen over hole and we could see some tracks that were difficult to read. 

But the ice was glorious and there was another small tree stump in the center. 

We weren’t sure who had made the holes until we spied another and some prints in the snow. 

The five tear-drop shaped toes provided a huge hint. 

And a bigger hint–a hole nearby. 

As usual, it commanded a closer look. 

And what did we find? Fish scales. With that signature, and the prints and even the pattern of the older tracks near the snowshoe hare activity, we knew a river otter had recently eaten. 

Eventually, we made our way back to the road, crossed over and checked the cornfield for we still weren’t sure who had brought the cobs to the bog. It made sense that the raccoon may have, but all of them? 

We found plenty of deer tracks, many of which were again filled with either kernels or nearly complete cobs. 

But it was the one stuck up in a broken red maple limb and the chitting nearby, plus scat below, and the actual sighting of a particular mammal that we think gave us the answer as to why so many piles of kernels–red squirrels. 

With that, it was time for us to take our leave. First, we gave great thanks, however, to Parker for sending me the photo of the hole. When I’d shown it to another friend, he asked why the spiral. I think that was the lowest point and the porcupine climbed out and then made its typical swath around until it reached the higher ground each time it exited and entered.

The question none of us could answer–what about that sawdust smattering?  

Ah well, we saved that for another day and left thankful for the opportunity to solve most of the holey mysteries. 

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