Garden Birds

One of the most pleasant aspects of taking an interest in bushcraft has been a developing interest in watching wildlife.

I have always been fond of watching wild animals but previously it had been a very passive interest – taking pleasures when they presented themselves rather than actively seeking them. But bushcraft has fostered in me an active interest in going out to sit, wait, and watch what I can. In truth, I have found that going out to watch wildlife has formed more of my outdoor time than anything else, for quite a while now.

In real terms that has meant birds more than anything. Mainly because birds are easier to watch (small mammals are far more secretive), but pleasure is found in whatever comes by.

Chaffinch

Our back garden is ringed by trees and hedges and, though it is an end of terrace house, there aren’t many over-looking houses because the gardens are quite big. Therefore there is a lot of space and privacy for birds to fly from tree to hedge.

When working at home I often sit with my computer on a desk, upstairs, looking out over the back garden, as I am doing as I type this.

This means I have a good view over our garden, the next door neighbour’s, and the house opposite. And I get to see many birds. More often than not I have a pair of binoculars beside me (mainly because they live on a shelf beside the table) so when something interesting lands in the garden I can get a good look.

House Sparrows

We mainly get all the usual garden birds – robins, house sparrows, starlings, collared doves, black birds, crows, magpies, great tits, pigeons, chaffinches, etc. I have noticed a good number of blue tits, despite suggestions that numbers are dwindling. I have also seen frequent song thrushes, though not as many as I remember seeing as a youngster.

Chaffinches and robins are two of my favourite birds, so I am glad they are so common. I have also regularly seen goldfinches, a greater spotted woodpecker, bull finches, green woodpeckers, mistle thrushes, wrens, swifts, swallows, and green finches.

Green Finch

We’ve also had some relatively exotic guests as well – a sparrowhawk has landed on the far fence a few times, and a heron frequently flies over and sometimes lands (the neighbours have a pond with koi carp in it!). And this morning I saw a goldcrest flitting from one tree to another. I have often heard its call but never seen it until today. In fact, as I type, it’s just gone flying back to the spruce at the bottom of the garden, sitting on a branch in the sunlight. Until recently I had never seen one before, unaware that my garden was home to one (or more).

Goldcrest

Other birds I often hear but have yet to reveal themselves are the familiar hoot of a tawny owl, and a cuckoo. There are other bird calls I hear but don’t recognise so there are other possibilities about as well.

Tawny Owl

It rained last night, but now the sun is out and shining, and steam is coming from the fences and bushes. Into this bright light and mist the shadows dash left and right, pausing briefly on a branch or twig, just long enough to offer a glimpse, before taking to wing again.

Campfire Cooking

I thought I’d put together a film of a few recipes that you can make when out in the woods.

There’s three different recipes, and each is cooked differently, so you can vary your cooking depending on how inventive you’re feeling or how much time you have.

They all have one thing in common, though – they’re dead easy to do!

 

Testing Natural Tinders

Firelighting is an essential part of bushcraft and s******l skills. Ideally one should be able to go out into the wilderness and be able to sustain one’s being with what can be found around you. Ideally.

So what I thought I would do is a test of the most popular and well known natural tinders. By ‘natural tinders’ what I mean are those things that can be found and can be used with minimal preparation, ‘in the field’ as it were. In some cases the tinders can be used straightaway (e.g. birch bark), in other cases it must be allowed to dry (e.g. fungi tinders).

In my test I have used two different methods of providing a spark – a traditional flint and steel, plus the ubiquitous firesteel.

Firelighting

AMADOU – Amadou is a name given to the soft, suede-like, layer found in bracket fungus. It can be found in most types of bracket fungus, Horse Shoe Fungus being the most popular since it often yields a thicker layer.

Amadou

The amadou is best extracted whilst the fungus is still soft. Soft is a relative term, of course, because bracket fungus is notoriously ‘woody’. You can see the amadou in the above photo, it is the auburn brown layer on top (in the photo – in reality it tends to be toward the bottom layer). To get the amadou you have to cut away the tough outer layer and then slice away the amadou and leave it to dry. This is the stage at which I used the amadou. Many people go further and then soak the amadou in water before leaving it to dry again before soaking in salt petre. This extra preparation will provide an even better tinder, but for my purposes I wanted to test it as you may use it when found. So all that’s been done to the amadou I used in this test is that it was removed from the fungus and allowed to dry.

Before dropping a spark into the amadou you have to rough the surface. It can be quite easily scrapped with a knife to create a mound of downy material that will take the spark.

Amadou2

Once the spark has hit the amadou and taken you will see it smoking. Gently blow on it to give energy to the ember. As the smoke increases so must your breath, until you can blow quite hard into it.

Amadou3

It is worth noting that amadou will not provide you with a flame. You will need to transfer the ember into some other combustible material and blow this into flame.

DRIED BRACKEN –

Bracken1

Dried leaves and grass are perhaps what we most associate with fires. But experience has shown that they tend smoulder a lot, and give off a great deal of smoke. Bracken, however, has a good reputation as a tinder mainly due to the fact that it dries out quickly, lessening the amount of smoulder and smoke given off by other dry leaves.

Bracken4

I found that it readily took a spark from a firesteel, though the flame was short-lived. It was important to get the spark at the bottom of the pile so the modest flame could lick through the tinder. This can often be the problem with lighter, more insubstantial, tinders since the material burns too quickly before you can get your kindling going. So add more!

I found that it proved a considerably greater challenge lighting the bracken with flint and steel. That said, it was a bitterly cold day with the low temperature taking the life out of the sparks. Be that as it may, it is on cold days that a fire is most needed, and so cold days are the best days for testing skills and materials! I found that if the bracken was roughed up by rubbing it together then that created smaller fibres that were more likely to catch. That said, not an ideal tinder for flint and steel.

Bracken3

BIRCH BARK – An old favourite! Birch bark can be collected by carefully pulling at the wispy strips of bark one often sees as the birch tree naturally shreds its bark to make way for new growth. The great thing about birch bark is that, being a bit more woody, it also provides a more substantial tinder fuel, giving rise to a more robust flame that lasts long enough to get your kindling alight.

Birch bark1

It also requires minimal preparation and can be collected more or less all year round. It took very well from just the first strike of a firesteel.

Birch bark2

It’s not all good news though. It was less susceptible to a spark from a flint and steel. That’s only natural though – the sparks are cooler and I was testing on a particularly cold day. That said, by scrapping up the birch bark, in a similar way to that you would for amadou, it did take a spark to which more tinder can be added.

Birch bark3

CRAMP BALLS – Another tinder fungus, also known as King Alfred’s Cakes. Cramp balls can be widely collected from dead trees. They look like shiny black mounds, about golf ball size.

Cramp Ball

This has long been a favourite of mine. What I like about cramp balls is that they take a spark quite easily and just smoulder away, which means they can be used to hold an ember if you need to travel and transfer your fire.

Like amadou the cramp ball must be allowed to dry out thoroughly before use. And, like amadou, all it provides is an ember to which you must add other material to create a flame (birch bark, for instance). The trick is to drop your spark on to the concentric rings on the underside of the fungus.

Crampball2

Once done, the cramp ball will glow quite hot. Blow into the fungus to allow the ember to take firm hold.

Crampball3

The advantage with cramp balls over amadou is that the amadou ember is nestled in the down you have scrapped up so you have to be careful you don’t blow too hard and send the ember flying. Not so with cramp balls – the ember is in the body of the fungus.

CLEMATIS DOWN – Also known as ‘Old Man’s Beard’, these are the wispy balls of down you often see in hedgerows and gardens during the winter months when the clematis flowers have died.

Clematis

This was a new one for me, having never tried it before (and also been given a pointer to what to look for by Paul).

Very soft, very wispy, you can tell this one will catch nice and easily. Which it did. However, the insubstantial nature of the material means that, like the dried bracken, it can burn out very quickly. Which it did. It took a spark very well, even from a flint and steel, but it flared up very quickly and burnt out very quickly. You need a lot of this, or be lucky enough that your spark hits near the bottom.

Clematis2

CONCLUSION – Before this test I had never used amadou or clematis down before, so was looking forward to seeing how they would perform, particularly the amadou, which a lot of people like.

I must say, I was underwhelmed with the amadou. I should emphasise though, that I was just using the dried material with no other preparation done to it. Although, that was the point of the test  – tinders you can find and use with minimal work. Don’t get me wrong, it worked well enough, but there are other tinders that work just as well, and are less hassle. Of course, if you are in a survival situation and it’s the only one you can find, then you will use it. For that reason, it’s as well to be aware of, but as a natural tinder then it was my least favourite of the lot. If you’re going to the extent of more extensive preparation then I would sooner use char cloth.

Next comes clematis down. It takes a spark really well but it is so insubstantial that it burns too quickly. You need to shelter this one well, and have lots of it!

Third place goes to cramp balls. Two things let them down – the need to let them dry out (this could take several days) and the need to transfer them to another material to produce flame. On the plus side is the fact that they take a spark really well, and hold it, giving you a bit of ‘play’ time. Larger balls can be used to hold an ember whilst you move camp.

Second place goes to dried bracken. If wet, then this also needs to be dried out, but dries better and quicker than fungi tinders – stuff it in your pocket and your body heat may be enough to dry it out (this does work. A couple of years ago Paul and myself were out on a very wet day. We collected dried grasses and leaves, stuffed them in our pockets, and did get a fire going after a great deal of effort. But it did work). Damp dried bracken would be a sore test to get going with flint and steel. But then any damp natural tinder is going to be difficult – therefore, look after your tinder! The only reason I put dried bracken over cramp balls is that bracken will provide a flame. If you had both, then I’d use the cramp balls to take the spark and move the ember into the bracken…

The golden child of the test was birch bark. It takes a spark well and it also provides a good flame that can be put straight to your kindling. Maybe not the best tinder for flint and steel, but still possible with preparation. It’s also widely available, easy to collect, and can be used straightaway. What more could you ask for?

Wildlife and Bushcraft Gallery

In my ‘Things I Intend On Doing’ (see post below) I said how I wanted to do more wildlife photography. Well, so far so good…

 

Great Expectations

It’s Winter here. And with that comes many opportunities. So, instead of New Year’s Resolutions (and it’s a bit late for those now) what we thought is share with you the things we are looking forward to doing over the coming couple of months.
map and compass

PAUL – This year I would like to further develop my navigation skills and do some longer walks over open terrain. So far we have mainly concentrated on developing the core skills with navigation exercises around woodland, following a set route to easily identifiable points usually no more than a kilometre away at the most. This has been invaluable as a learning exercise but I would like to expand upon that.
badger sett

I would also like to improve my tracking ability, or rather, I would like to be able to better distinguish between different ‘signs’ I discover. I guess the ultimate goal of this is not only to better understand what has been there before, but to enable me to observe more wildlife. Top of that list would be to watch badgers as I have never seen a live badger in the wild.
snowy woods
Stephen – What I am looking to do over the coming year is build natural shelters, ones themed and associated with the time of year. Therefore, I’m hoping for a good flurry of snow so I can build a quinze. A quinze is a shelter made from compacted snow and then hollowed out.

Over the last year I’ve found myself getting more and more interested in nature photography, so getting some decent wildlife shots is also an aim.

Foraging is also is a perennial interest, and Winter is a good time for coastal foraging, but as the season comes to an end and Spring starts then early greens start coming out so I’d like to see what I can find and maybe start a database of what is available, and where, locally. This is also the time of year to hone one’s tree identification – without leaves it’s a chance to see what you know and what you don’t.
sweet chestnut

Review: The Little Book of Whittling

OK, so this will be a review of ‘The Little Book of Whittling’ by Chris Lubkemann (Fox Chapel Publishing ISBN 9781565232747).

This 97 page book is just a tad larger than A5 in size and has colour illustrations throughout. It will fit just nicely in a pack if you’re out for the day.

The book is subtitled ‘Passing time on the trail, on the porch, and under the stars’ and that sums up the appeal of this great book – it is redolent of times past, of a solitary afternoon in the woods, of simple and uncomplicated fun.

Inside you will find several projects – from carving animal heads to that great staple of bushcrafters everywhere: carving a spoon! But it is much more than that. The book starts with how to care for your knife and how to properly sharpen it. It then goes on to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of different woods. Even more, interspersed througout the text are boxed entries on such things as ‘Methods of Starting a Fire Without A Match’, ‘Common Types of Tracks’, ‘Trail Snacks’, and many more.

There are eighteen projects in total. Each is clearly introduced, with step-by-step colour photographs, as well as a ‘Materials’ section. It is hard to see how Lubkemann could have made it any clearer. Each is written in a simple and straightforward manner – not so much ‘instructions’ as an informal chat. That’s the great appeal of this book; you feel like you’re being talked through it all by a kindly friend than just simple cold instructions. The writer’s idiosyncracies and character run throughout the whole book and just taking it out of your bag and flicking through it is enough to soothe the soul.

However, if this book was just a book of whittling projects that would be enough. But it is more. Because what it is also doing is teaching you knife control. By doing these projects you will learn a number of useful knife cuts and how to handle your knife with precision and control.

I’ve had a go at some of them myself. I went out for a ride on my bike – ham salad sarnies and bottle of water in my bag, with The Little Book of Whittling and a small penknife:

(There’s a story behind this knife. I’ve had it about 20 years or so now. My dad was a prison officer and one day he saw an inmate acting furtively. He thought he saw a knife. He challenged the inmate about it, who denied he had a knife. ‘Right,’ said my dad, ‘you have a choice – either you can stop being a prat and give the knife to me and that will be an end to it; or else I will call help and your cell will be checked, we’ll find the knife and, if you’re lucky, you’ll lose your next parole hearing and any privileges you have; or, if you’re unlucky, you’ll have this incident entered on your records, be put in solitary, and have your sentence lengthened. What do you want to do?’

The inmate handed over the knife. And my dad gave it to me.)

I spent the afternoon sat on some logs beneath one of my favourite sit-trees and did two of the projects – a song bird and  a leaping fish. You can judge if they were any good.

After I was done I thought I’d leave them where they were for someone else to discover and wonder at what they were doing there.

The Little Book of Whittling can be ordered from any high street book shop, or online at Amazon. To my mind it should be every part of the bushcrafter’s library as much as Ray’s ‘Essential Bushcraft’.

A Jew’s Ramson

Despite the constant rain, I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be Spring here in the UK. This means it is a good time for the foragers out there. Foraging is the bushcraft skill I am most interested in developing; although I have still got miles to go. That said, when I compare what I know now to what I knew a year or two ago, then I can see I have definitely learnt something.

And that’s the most important thing.

In the last week I have made two good finds.

First up is a fungus – Jew’s Ear Fungus.

This predominantly grows on dead Elder, though not exclusively so. It ranges in size from something the size of a penny, up to two or three inches across. When it dries out it shrinks and can be re-constituted by simply allowing to soak in water for a few minutes.

It’s not the most attractive fungus, but is quite edible. They are best not eaten raw – they’re still edible, but it’s like chewing a bit of rubber. Most often they are cleaned, sliced thinly and added to stews. You can let them dry out and then crush them into a powder to use as a thickener/flavour to stews and soups.

The good thing about Jew’s Ear fungus is that it’s an easy one to identify.

A couple of days ago, whilst out for a bike ride, I passed a large patch of Ramsons (otherwise known as wild garlic).

The flowers, and the smell, made it hard to mistake them. Do be warned though – it is easy to misidentify Ramsons for two very poisonous species: lily of the valley and lords & ladies. All three plants have similar leaves. You should ensure you are aware of the differences. However, if in bloom, Ramson flowers are very different to both lily of the valley and lords & ladies. Also, Ramsons smell of garlic – the other two do not (crush the leaves and smell your hands – Ramsons will have the unmistakable smell. Always wash your hands afterwards – the others can give you a nasty skin infection and you don’t want to accidentally ingest any sap left on your hands).

Taste-wise, Ramsons don’t taste as strong as the odour would suggest. They are more like a strong spring onion than a bulb of garlic. You can use them as you would use any onion/garlic – when I had them it was in some garlic/ramson bread. And jolly nice it was too.

If you are unsure then leave any wild fungus/plant well alone! ALWAYS seek advice from experts (and, no – I’m NOT an expert).

Bushcraft Gallery

I decided to put together a gallery of images.

Here it is:

Vision On

Because I’m still so giddy about making Youtube films I’ve got another one for you. It’s a gallery of images.

Picture This (gallery)

I thought I’d present a gallery of  ‘bushcraft’ images for you.

So here they are.

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