The Met Office did warn us about snow over the South Downs in mid-January but I had to get into St. Richard’s Hospital to make a radio broadcast on Chichester Area Talking News just as the blizzard started at night-fall and so I set off into that swirling white chaos.
On my return later that evening slush was starting to freeze on the roads. By bed-time the full moon reigned supreme over the white woodland. I was glad of the snow despite its inconvenience because it would show me what was happening in the wood.
When the sun rose I made an inspection of the tracks and pathways throughout the oaks and hazel coppice. I photographed the very first track and here it is, taken on the grass ride a few yards from the garden.
A medium-sized bird with wide-spaced toes had shuffled slowly forward through the snow and pushed its beak into the damp soil. You can see the eight holes in front of its footprints made by its three-inch long beak. This is not something one sees very often and it made my day.
It is the track of a woodcock, a bird which hides by day in thick cover under bracken and brambles, and flies out to feed forty minutes after sunset to look for worms.
In a few weeks this bird will probably fly all the way back to Siberia to breed in the pine forests, perhaps making the journey in one continuous flight. After that I found the track of two foxes which had trotted around searching for food. Their lozenge-shaped pads showing claws and fur between the toes are quite different from dog or badger. I guess a vixen had accompanied a dog fox, because three times I came across flattened snow where she had rolled over in front of him and perhaps shaken her legs in the air in flirtation. Roe and fallow deer had left their marks too.
A roe had actually come into the garden to nibble the ivy leaves off the electricity pole just outside the bedroom window. There is a field of sweet-corn nearby, planted to hold pheasants. A lot of mice had crossed the ride where the snow was white and smooth so the tracks were easily seen. I expect these were mainly yellow-necked mice, a fairly rare animal in Britain but common in Sussex.
Scared at making this crossing against a dead white background with owls patrolling the night skies they had leapt a yard each time, which is the equivalent of us taking steps six yards apart as we run a marathon. But then we don’t have four legs.
When I got back to the house for breakfast I found most of the bird tracks to be seen in the wood were outside my kitchen window, where six robins, six great tits, eight blue tits and all the rest had made a complete mess of the snow at their early morning feeding frenzy. Roll on more snow, it doesn’t worry me. Until I can’t get out at all, that is.