Thomas Jefferson would have loved Londolozi. Third American president, author of the Declaration of American Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, architect, historian, collector, philosopher, author and naturalist; there would be a lot for Mr Jefferson to revel in and remark upon here. I wonder what he would have made of a digital camera though?


Thomas Jefferson.

One of his lesser known pursuits was as a student of the science of Phenology. Broadly described as the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena such as the flowering of trees, breeding of animals and migration of birds in response to climatic conditions, Thomas Jefferson was once described as the Father of Weather Observers. He arose painstakingly at dawn throughout his life and made meticulous observations at his famed Monticello, in what he termed ‘indexes of climate.’

These included wind direction, humidity, rainfall and the flowering and fruiting of nearly everything that grew there. He noted the arrival and departure of migrating birds, insect emergences and his intention was to form a reliable theory of weather and climate based on his data.


An amazing storm and cloud formation forms over Londolozi and drenches the bush within minutes. Photo by Simon Smit

These sorts of observations have helped arrive at some traditional phenological practices in North America such as planting potatoes when the first dandelion blooms, planting watermelons on Good Friday and planting corn when the apple blossoms start to fall. He would have had a literal field day here with our astounding biodiversity.

We have our own phenologists here and you only need a short conversation with one of Londolozi’s older trackers to appreciate that they are in touch with this natural intuition and are able to interpret it. Jerry and Elmon will tell you that we are due for two weeks of sunshine when the Red billed Queleas nest whilst Judas will point out a snake track and forecast rain. Dave Varty will regard the north wind with suspicion and gloomily forecast a weather front moving in to disrupt the building of the new kitchen. Exon will hear the call of a Fork-tailed Drongo and tell you it has arrived.


A shallow, cup shaped nest of a fork tailed drongo, cleverly constructed in the boughs of a Knob thorn tree for added protection. Photo by Andrea Campbell

Jeffersons’ theoretical model for climate may have ultimately been too ambitious. Mother Nature has been moody of late and certainly at Londolozi our soothsayers are scratching their heads. The ‘Dog Days of Summer’ are almost over and we’ve only registered about half our annual rainfall. February crossings of the Sand River at Finfoot are rare events here and we’re crisscrossing there as well as driving the entire length of the Mxabene drainage line without getting our tyres wet. A dry season? A drought? Is the rain still coming?

Perhaps the signs of a dry season were there all along. Knob thorns flowered in July instead of late August. Weeping Boerbeans this year didn’t bother with their crimson display at all. The Woodland Kingfishers, migrating from further north in Africa, were late this year arriving at the end of November instead of the beginning, impalas, warthogs and wildebeest were all seen with their young in the first week of November instead of the last. We also had a few new records for birds in the White-fronted Plover mixing it up with the Cessnas at the airstrip and a Common Whimbrel fluttering about with Senegal Lapwings in the Open Areas. Elsewhere in the Sabi Sands a Southern Pochard was seen and even an Osprey did a few fly-bys down the river in front of Varty Camp. We haven’t seen a hairy caterpillar yet and only a handful of White Storks appeared to feast on grasshoppers. In Southern Europe it’s rumoured that some White Storks decided to skip the migration all together.


A Woodland kingfisher holds a recently caught solifuge, or sun spider.


We haven’t seen a hairy caterpillar yet and only a handful of White Storks appeared to feast on grasshoppers. Photo by Andrea Campbell

Global warming or climate change or both? Weather does change and the earth heats up and cools down cyclically. I suppose outside of the dread that we are to blame for some of the weather extremeties belies the simple question of whether we can spot the patterns in climate the way the animals, insects and birds have. Thomas Jefferson thought so and given that we all wake up at dawn at Londolozi maybe we should record a little more than the depressingly low level in the rain gauge.


A gorgeous view over Londolozi. Photo by Mike Sutherland

Not surprisingly animals and plants change their behaviour in response to climatic changes. Aside from liberal doses of sunscreen or more layers of clothing are we going to be more responsive or even responsible? At Londolozi we are making wholesale changes to the way we do things but whether it is enough only time will tell? It’s hard work for sure but it’s worth listening to Thomas Jefferson who famously said:

“Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.”

Written by: Tom Imrie

Have you noticed any animal in the area where you live that has been a good indicator of weather changes/patterns? Share your thoughts below.

About the Author

Tom Imrie

Field Guide

Tom is the voice of wisdom, reason and logic on the Londolozi Ranging Team, as well as all the other facets that go hand-in-hand with being an intellectual far beyond the realm of most mere mortals. There are very few subjects under the ...

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on Why We Believe That Thomas Jefferson Would Have Loved Londolozi

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Marinda Drake

Interesting blog Tom. There is definitely a change in weather patterns this year. Last winter was not cold at all. Maybe not a drought quite yet, but after a few very wet years the climate is changing. Let’s hope for a very cold winter this year.

Kate Collins

Thank you Tom. I throughly enjoyed your post and like you, I believe that Thomas Jefferson would have fallen in love with Londolozi!

Sue Sylvester

I have been told that the weaver birds build high if there is to be a wet summer (rivers flooding) and low if there is to be a drought. My Zulu gardener is probably right! He also said the Glossy Starling is called ‘Star of the Morning’ in Zulu because it is the first to call in the early dawn and wakes the farmers up to work in the fields.

Steve Gordon

I enjoyed reading your informative blog Tom. As usual you provide some interesting insights and raise some compelling questions. Your abstract of Jefferson’s work shows that despite the complexities of the natural world, much can be learned and predicted with the combination of meticulous observation and an inquiring mind. No digital camera needed!

Sean Cresswell

Absolutely love this post. Makes for a great read and really raises some important observations over the past few months. Thank you, Tom, for sharing… As always!

Jill Grady

Thank you Tom for the very interesting blog and reminder that we can all do our part in helping to heal the damage that has been done to the Earth. In Canada, seeing the Robins arrive back from their winter migration, has always been our first sign that spring has arrived, but in the past two winters I have been stunned to look outside and see the odd Robin still with us through the winter. This is a bird who eats worms and insects and was eating the birdseed, peanuts and suet that I was putting outside in feeders during the winter for our year round birds, such as Cardinals and Blue Jays. So, we are also seeing birds skipping their migration, as well as more rainfall and flooding in our summer and colder, more severe weather during the past two winters. It’s interesting to hear from different parts of the world as to the changes in climate and animal behaviour that have been noted.

Annette Gordon

You prove that philosophy is for us all. We loved your spin on the world. Thought provoking. To read this now, just like on game drives. Lucky us! Turned into miliant recyclers.
So want to return.
Tom, you represent the best, of a lot of bests, of Londolozi.

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