Jim Crumley takes you a wander through his winter wonderland with this short series of recalled adventures in the snow. Here, he happens upon the strangest field vole snow print but has a good idea why.
And then, there is the story of the short-tailed field vole. You may have trouble taking my word for this, but the story is true. There was a day of November in which the first snow came around noon and lasted for two or three hours. I watched it transform the view from the window as I worked through the afternoon.
I went out in the last of the light. About two inches of snow lay on the woodland track, much of it pristine, for the snow had only just stopped falling. That sense of a woodland-after-snow scent hung on the air. Its atmosphere reminded me of bog myrtle after rain.
Suddenly, there at my feet was the most unlikely print in the snow you might ever imagine. It was perhaps an inch deep, and it was as if someone had made a perfect mould of a short-tailed field vole in silhouette. There was its nose, there an ear, there the perfect outline of its head and body, there two of the legs, the feet. No footprints led up to it, and none led away from it. But a yard away, the track of the vole on the run was as clearly etched in the snow as the imprint of the body.
The thing is, I knew exactly what had happened, and the reason I knew was that once before – and only once in a lifetime of watching wildlife – I saw it happen, and although snow played no part in that previous encounter, it explained to me at once how a vole body had left its mark in the snow. It was a different track in a different woodland, but that apart I am as certain as I can be that that November day when I walked out in the year’s first new snow, natural history repeated itself.
So, the first time, it was a day of a big wind, and I like walking in woodland in a big wind almost as much as I like walking in woodland with first snow falling.
Small bits of trees were all over the track, twigs with a spray of larch cones attached, spruce and pine cones, acorns, branches with withered oak leaves still attached. The air felt mobile, the flotsam of the wood was on the move. Then something fell from high in a larch tree above me, narrowly missing my right shoulder, a dark tree-coloured blur that was nevertheless not a piece of a tree.
It landed with a soft thud beside my feet, and there it was clearly recognisable as a short-tailed field vole. Not only that, it was very much alive.
It is pushing imagination to say that it was completely unscathed, but at once it sprang away across the track with an extraordinary bound that must have carried it the better part of yard through the air, and it hit the ground running. It did not slow up when it reached the ditch at the edge of the track, nor did it detour round a shallow puddle there, but swam across vigorously, then disappeared among grass and bracken on the far side.
I looked back to the larch tree in time to see a sparrowhawk cast off from a branch, fly fast and low up the track and then swerve away into the depths of the forest.
What had happened was this. The hawk had caught the vole as it crossed the track, and carried it up into the tree. Its grasp on the vole had been imperfect, perhaps just a single talon had grasped it – enough to lift it from the ground but not to carry it far, so it opted to perch and rearrange its grip. At that point, it was disturbed by my sudden appearance, and between that and the movement in the branches caused by the big wind, the vole’s struggles effected the unlikeliest of escapes and it fell to earth. That, at least, is my best guess.
And that is also absolutely the only circumstance I can think of that explains the soft imprint in the snow, the long gap before the tracks began, and smile of recognition on my face like a rising sun, or the glow of a spirit-beam, turning round and round as if warming at a camp fire.
You can read more of Jim Crumley’s Scottish wildlife columns online here, and each month in The Scots Magazine.
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