December 19, 2010

Tracks and trails

Pigeon tracks - magpies' long tails
would leave a drag mark
Last night I watched two young foxes tussling and playing in the snow. It was late, the common was deserted and unlit and had the ground not been white I wouldn't have seen them. That's probably what they were banking on; they let me get quite close, probably assuming themselves to be an invisible as ever. They nosed the snow carefully; one dug away at it with his front paws for a moment, then froze, intent. But no kill. The other followed a scent trail, head down, into the trees.

Cat, dog and people prints
The snow holds scents for longer, so that a trail of footprints is even more vivid to a fox's nose than to its eye. It's the same with my dog; she is distracted, enraptured, by the web of smells around her when I walk her in the snow. For us the clues it gives up are purely visual: the small, neat prints of a cat, the oval pads of a fox, the right-left-right of birds like magpies and pigeons or the hopping marks of a blackbird.

Under the insulating blanket, life goes on. Voles and shrews make little paths between their burrows and winter food stores, or simply to get around and hunt: grass or ground underfoot, snow above. If it lies for any length of time the ghostly runs can sometimes be discerned, for a day or two, when it melts.