Spend enough time in the woods and sooner or later you’ll come across something that will make you scratch your head and ponder, “What is it?” or, “What did it?” In most cases there’s a perfectly good explanation, though there are exceptions.

Slipping along a deer trail you see a tree up ahead with the bark exposed. Thinking it might be a buck rub you move in for a closer inspection and observe a good bit of one side has been excavated. “That must have been one big old, angry buck,” you think. “Or maybe it was a bear, digging for grubs in the soft bark.” More than likely it was neither of the above. Rather, it was the work of a woodpecker, probably a pileated. They can wreak havoc on a tree and will work right down to ground level.

Slipping through an abandoned and overgrown apple orchard, hoping to flush a grouse you notice patterns of small, circular holes in the bark of some trees. “Must be a good spot for birds; look at all those pellet holes.” Nope. This is also the work of a member of the woodpecker family, the yellow-bellied sapsucker. They tap the trees to let sap run out, which attracts and captures insects, making for easy pickings.

More wandering brings you into a grove of young hemlocks, and still more bark stripping. “These are definitely buck rubs. I can even see where their antlers made grooves in the bark.” It could be, but more likely it was teeth that made those grooves. As winter winds on and food becomes more scarce, deer and moose will literally strip the bark off trees, especially hemlocks. It doesn’t provide much nutrition but it does generate a little warmth and keeps the bacteria in their stomachs functioning to digest other, more palatable food.

You find all kinds of things on the forest floor, like bones and scat. A small, furry gray “blob” might look like coyote or fox scat at a quick glance. Upon closer inspection you see it’s mostly hair and tiny bones, maybe even the nearly intact skull of a mouse or vole. Those small rodents are also a favorite food of owls, and after digestion, they’ll regurgitate a pellet of indigestible fur and bones. Look around and you’ll probably find more if it’s a preferred roost tree.

You find another bone, this one much larger and with two distinct holes for the eyes. “Must be some type of bird,” you think, “but it has a pretty flat head. What could it be?” You’re close, sort of. It most likely is a bird, but it’s not a skull at all. The pelvic bones of birds are fused into a single bone structure called the synsacrum, and those of larger birds like geese and turkeys do look a lot like skulls. Look closer and you’ll see small, round sockets where the leg bones attached, and along the top, the vestiges of a spinal column.

Tracks in the snow are often a mystery too, particularly the paw prints of a predator. The pock marks of a bobcat might look like a lion, and the pugs of a coyote seem more like a wolf. Even the cloven hoof prints of a deer might appear to be made by a giant mature buck. It’s just nature playing tricks with us. As the snow melts and the tracks age they seem to grow in size, giving the impression they were made by something much larger.

The woods are full of mysteries, most of which can be solved through experience and consulting the right references. Then, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, you encounter something inexplicable and the puzzle-solving begins anew, adding more and different challenges to the hunt.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer, registered Maine guide and certified wildlife biologist who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:
[email protected]

Comments are not available on this story.