Kingdoms, Families and Nomen

9 February 2010

Having talked about families of birds briefly in my last post I thought a more thorough look into the topic could be beneficial here. All lifeforms on Earth have been categorised using a special system, aside from giving biology students something to study for tests, this system also makes it easier for us to recognise what type of plant or animal we're looking at.

Binomial System

Things are categorised using a binomial system where the organism is named using 2 Latin names. These are usually italicised and the first written with a capital letter and the 2nd with lower case. The first name tells you the family and the second the species. A good example is the carrion crow, Corvus corone. Above the family comes the order. This is the big group of animals with similar physiology. For example all rodents come together, as do whales and dolphins, as do carnivores. For those of you with an interest in linguistics or Latin the names do have a meaning. Sometimes it is rather dull, with Corvus simply being Latin for Raven whereas sometimes the name is more descriptive with willows being known as Salix sp. which is derived from the word "to jump" which is used to describe the ease with which shoots and cuttings of the plant will take root.

Botany in a Day

This system of plant families is very useful when recognising plant types and it is this system of teaching familial characteristics which forms the basis of Thomas Elpel's "Botany in a Day". This an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend and is a text featured on Jack Mountain Bushcraft's reading list. It is an accessible yet detailed book and free from the personal comments that put some off his other books. If you are in any way interested in knowing the names of plants, recognising those with medicinal, culinary or other uses I cannot think of a better learning framework to recommend.

Why Families?

Knowing plant families is very useful if you are looking for wild edibles. Some families such as Viola, tend to be edible whilst others such as the Umbelliferae are a mixed bag with some valuable food plants and some being very dangerous. The same applies in the world of Fungi with Boletus being a good family to be able to identify as it contains many edible varieties and few dangerous ones. The converse is true of the Amanita family which contains most of the most dangerous fungi, it's therefore important to know the features of this family so knowing how to avoid them.

Tracking Benefits

Different classes of animals also produce different types of prints and tracks. Different groups of animals move in different ways, such as plantigrade animals which place all 5 toes on the ground when walking. having an awareness of the classification system also helps when searching for animals based on their habits. By knowing the habitat, mode of locomotion and other details it makes it possible to find the family and aid identification.It was through this process that I was able to identify Nuthatches recently - by looking at shape, habitat and feeding habits I was able to gradually narrow the search down.

Common Names

The everyday name of plants does give you some important information, particularly about past uses. An example often given in books is the Dandelion. The name is thought to describe the leaves being "dente de lion" describing the lion tooth shape of the leaves. The modern name the French use is "pissenlit" literally meaning wet the bed, hinting at the plant's diuretic properties. In Polish, the common name I've been introduced to is "Mlecz" being derived from the word for milk (mleko)  and referring to the milky white latex sap of the plant. Sometimes the Latin name is a fairly direct translation of the English name (or vice versa) as in the case of Shepherd's Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris. The literal meaning would be; little box, purse-shepherd's. Understanding both names can also serve as a mnemonic to aid learning and recognising plants and animals. The odd name is of course, completely silly. This seems particularly common when dealing with dinosaurs - I guess the heat and dust do something to the brain when involved in the naming process. Dracorex hogwartsia is my case in point here!

Vital Skill

As you can see a little knowledge of this system will enable you to develop and use other skills more effectively. As with so many things in Bushcraft, it is a combination of skills and knowledge from various sources that helps you get the end result. For me this is an especially important skill as the system is international. I have books in different languages and from descriptions it can be hard to make sure you have the exact equivalent common names. Although common names give you some important cultural information the Latin name is the international key that enables you to check. It can also be useful when the same common name is used for more than one plant.

Read On

"Animal Tracks and Sign" in the Snow

8 February 2010

Last Thursday my wife and I went for a walk through Lazienki Park. It may not seem the most exciting of places but as the paths are quite strictly marked and there are lots of undisturbed snow areas around them then you can still track quite well.

Situational Tracks

Sometimes it doesn't take a lot of expertise to find what animal made a track. The only animal whose tracks tend to look like a one legged moose but goes from the bottom of one tree to another is a squirrel. In deeper snow their fore and rear paw prints tend to come together to produce one print, quite like that one a moose. They seem to do this whether running or leaping. It is a bit disconcerting to find tracks starting just in the middle of nowhere though, I guess the squirrel had dropped off a branch.

The Corvid Family

A lot of walkers through the park are keen on the birds there. Aside from the ornamental peacocks, mallard ducks and pigeons there is quite a selection of other birds. Most of the corvid family were present and noisy. Carrion crows, jackdaws, magpies, possibly rooks and a rather magnificent Jay. The Jay was very impressive, sporting multi-coloured feathers and a punkish tuft on his head. It seems all the effort goes into the colour though as he made no nicer sound than any of the other birds in his family. His Latin name is Garrulus glandarius which makes reference to the noisy habits. The snow also allows you to compare the tracks of crows to pigeons, quite useful as the 2 birds are very common yet have utterly different modes of locomotion. The crows leave tracks which run almost as if on rails with each foot leaving a parallel line of tracks like so ====== pigeons on the other hand put one foot in front of the other although it does leave a drunken weave to the track. 

The Tit Family

Lower down the trees and bushes there were a variety of small tits. There were blue tits and great tits side by side and very busily looking for food. They were bold birds and would fly to people, seem to hover for a second, then dart away again. Some walkers were trying to coax the little birds to take seed from the palms of their hands. I wonder if the birds are seasonal visitors to the area, due to the presence of feeders, or simply more noticeable without the leaves and puffed up to keep warm

Wing Tips and Tracking Tips

A first for me was being able to see wing tip tracks in the snow. It revealed that not all birds land gracefully, one leaving a body shaped "splat" where it misjudged the landing slightly! I wasn't able to discern the species although one set of wing tip prints were in line with squirrel tracks and possibly associated with them in some way.  I first saw pictures of wing tip tracks on Ray Mears' Bushcraft episode set in Sweden. Most of the information I need and use for snow tracking comes from Animal Tracks and Signs, an excellent book for tracking in wintry conditions and which deals with a real variety of European wildlife. It is the only serious tracking book I have and due to its ready availability is probably one of the more popular bushcraft tracking books. For those of you who'd like to get a more in depth or locally relevant book then the Woodlife network has a tracker's bibliography on the Information and Guides section of the resources page.

Read On

Bush-Bottle 1000

4 February 2010
Want the ultimate in outdoor water bottles? 

Super light weight yet nigh on unbreakable?

Able to purify water without chemicals or messy filters?

Then choose the Bush-Bottle 1000, capable of holding 1000ml of pure refreshment and endorsed by various wilderness gurus!

Not just trendy, also environmentally friendly?

Too Good to be True?

Not everything in bushcraft needs to be expensive - something of a shock for the growing bushcraft business bandwagon. Very effective tools can be made, modified or obtained very cheaply and in an environentally beneficial way.

First, Catch your Bottle

First you need to find a bottle. It needs to be with a wide mouth to make it easier to fill up. If you are going to fill a bottle with snow then a wider bottle top is a must. The next thing to look for is the type of plastic - we need a clear PET plastic bottle. Clear is good because you can see how much is in it and for another reason - SODIS. A 1 litre bottle is a good size, not too big and not too heavy when full.

Clean and Pure

SODIS is short for Solar Disinfection. By exposing a clear PET bottle of water to sunlight for 6 hours then the UV light will kill off the bad bugs and bacteria in the water. The battle needs to be placed horizontally, ideally on a reflective surface and must be in a bottle of less than 3 litres capacity in order for the UV waves to penetrate fully. This method is effective in sunlight so better in summer. The water needs to be of low turbidity i.e. not full of bits and cloudy for the same reason. Water can be boiled in the bottle on a fire, in order to avoid melting the bottle the flames need to be kept low, below the water level. Check out a video on the subject.

String Sling

To make filling the bottle and carrying it a little easier I've added a sling to mine, a handle sling around the neck and the bottle to help dip the bottle and I've also added a loop with a pile hitch a bit further down. They're just in garden string and I'll experiment with which one works best.

Drum Roll

So here it is, the Bush-Bottle 1000, this one's still got the milk in it, but after you use it and wash the bottle out then you're ready to go. Not quite as flashy as a $400 backpack or knife but it'll do its job., and when it's too old and scratched just put it in the recycle bin and go back for another one.

Read On