Rich Patterson knows much about nature, but the longtime director of the Indian Creek Nature Center says he learns something new all the time.
So Patterson now finds himself stumped, trying to figure out what critter or critters dug holes through a snow pile and frozen ground and deep into the ground in recent days just off a trail at the Nature Center.
"Right now itís a mystery animal, and a strong one to cut through that frozen ground," Patterson said on Wednesday.
He said he noticed the first two holes late last week along a trail about 100 yards from the Nature Center. No tracks were visible because of the crusty snow. Then on Sunday, two more holes appeared nearby, about 10 inches in diameter and 20 feet apart. The amount of fresh dirt on the snow made it hard to miss the new burrows, he said.
For now, Patterson is speculating that the critter is a nocturnal animal, perhaps a badger or coyote, though he says he has never seen a badger at or near the center in his 38 years as director except for a dead one out on the road.
"I wouldnít say badgers are very common around here, but they are very powerful and wonderful diggers," he said. "Iím not sure a coyote would dig a burrow that deep that quickly."
He said he doubted it was a fox, because foxes typically burrow in the fall or spring and do so near structures, brush piles or abandoned cars and not out in the open. Raccoons typically use culverts, holes in trees or holes created by something else, he added.
Vince Evelsizer, a wetland biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in Clear Lake, on Wednesday agreed with Patterson that the mystery critter was likely either a badger or a coyote. But itís more likely a badger, Evelsizer said.
He said badgers in Iowa are most common in southwest Iowa, though they also exist in eastern Iowa. The animals, he added, have long claws and short strong legs "made for digging."
"It was something that could move serious dirt," Evelsizer said after looking at a photo of the burrows provided by Patterson. He said if it is a badger, it likely was digging for hibernating gophers or ground squirrels that the badger has targeted by smell, and more burrows will likely appear.
Patterson said a local hunter is in the process of installing a camera near the fresh burrows to try to capture a photo of the creature as it emerges at nighttime. It will not be something out of a horror film, he predicted."I get stumped all the time," he said about the natural world. "Thatís the fun of it. Because thereís always new stuff and things you donít know. And anybody who thinks they know it all is wrong."