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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.