Journal Entries

December and January Sketch Practice

For me, it's holidays now! I've just returned from a trip to the Leolo Mountains with CREW (the plant folks) and now, back home, I've a few restful weeks to look ahead to. I've decided that the rest of December and most of January is going to be sketching and drawing practice time! I desperately need to level up with my art … I'm going to work really hard at it. I'll do both speed sketching and detail/polished drawings. I'm going to try to finish at least one thing every day.

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Latest reply: Dec 14, 2018

Birding Big Day 2018

OK here is the report … I'm keeping it short and to-the-point. You folks over there might find it interesting how we're using tech … we logged every species on BirdLasser, an app to record when and where species are seen. We could also see how the other teams are doing, including exactly which species *they* saw, in fairly close to real time! Please ask if you'd like more info on any of these species. As it is, I've covered quite a number of them already in my Colours of Wildlife column. The teams that won, got over 300 species! Two of the top 3 teams are from Polokwane!

Birding Big Day 2018 Report for Team Red-Billed Rocket Tails

The Red-Billed Rocket Tails are:
Mark Friskin
Julia Friskin
James Friskin
Willem van der Merwe

We started early, just after two in the morning. I'm not going to give away too much about the exact spots we went, but we first headed out to the Polokwane Game Reserve, where we got some night birds and caught the dawn chorus, after which we drove around in the reserve a bit. There were some pleasant surprises, such as a beautiful Violetbacked Starling who came to check us out and showed itself off at the same time. In fact, this was the first of several violetbacked starlings for the day … unfortunately all just count for one! Other neat glimpses included a Black Cuckooshrike, a bunch of Spurwinged Geese perching in a tree, a Temminck's Courser in a patch of burned veld, and some lovely specials of the reserve such as Red-breasted Swallows and a Short-clawed Lark. Also special was a Shaft-tailed Whydah.

From the reserve, we took a route through town and off to some farms. At a nice site we found a perched Southern Bald Ibis which made me very happy. Since we also saw glossy, sacred and hadeda ibises, we made the full tally of ibis species occurring in South Africa! Another special wetland bird we saw there was a Whiskered Tern.

Next we headed for the Haenertzburg and Magoebaskloof region. There we found mostly the usual suspects, but one that was a lifer for me was a Holub's Golden Weaver, a male and female busy with a nest! Also nice to see again was the Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, in the exact same spot we'd seen it not long before on a recce. Another special sighting was a Woolly-necked Stork perched in a tree.

Next we headed to the lowveld, Tzaneen and beyond. Special encounters included a Pale Flycatcher and a Croaking Cisticola, making our job easy by croaking for us. I mean its call – it survived.
We then went to a site we were sure to find African Skimmers, which we did. Finally, we headed off to where we knew some Bat Hawks to be nesting, but didn't find them. It was dark and they were likely off hunting. But we did get a final two species on call – Spotted Eagle Owl and African Wood Owl.

It was a rather good day for raptors; we got the Black-chested Snake Eagle, Wahlberg's Eagle, Lanner Falcon, African Fish Eagle, Yellow-billed and Black Kite, Long-crested Eagle, Forest and Jackal Buzzard, and perhaps nicest of all, an African Goshawk perched placidly in a garden quite close to the road!

We logged 225 species in total. This is quite a bit beyond what we did last year, 190 species. The fact that it didn't rain, as it did last year, helped – at least it helped in the birding, it would have helped the veld more if it had rained (at least in the Polokwane region – beyond Haenertzburg it was quite green). I think we came 19th or so out of over 300 teams. We were very happy with our total. Afterwards we worked out that there was still a large number of reasonably common birds which we did not encounter at all, such as Coqui Francolins, Cutthroat Finches, Firefinches (we didn't find any of the three species which we might have), White-fronted Bee Eaters, Amur Falcons, Kestrels (any of 3 species), Yellowstreaked Greenbuls (ordinarily almost impossible to miss in the forests) and many others … meaning we are set to do even better next year! Congrats and thanks from me to my other team members.

If you're interested, here is the complete list of what we saw, plus the times we logged them on Birdlasser.

1. Crowned Lapwing, 2018-11-24 02:03
2. Western Cattle Egret, 2018-11-24 02:04
3. Spotted Thick-knee, 2018-11-24 02:24
4. Fiery-necked Nightjar, 2018-11-24 02:25
5. Western Barn Owl, 2018-11-24 02:31
6. Rufous-cheeked Nightjar, 2018-11-24 02:34
7. Fork-tailed Drongo, 2018-11-24 03:15
8. Pearl-spotted Owlet, 2018-11-24 03:15
9. Crested Francolin, 2018-11-24 03:32
10. Southern Boubou, 2018-11-24 03:39
11. Natal Spurfowl, 2018-11-24 03:52
12. Crimson-breasted Shrike, 2018-11-24 04:05
13. Red-chested Cuckoo, 2018-11-24 04:24
14. White-browed Scrub Robin, 2018-11-24 04:34
15. Rufous-naped Lark, 2018-11-24 04:37
16. Kalahari Scrub Robin, 2018-11-24 04:39
17. Laughing Dove, 2018-11-24 04:41
18. Grey Go-away-bird, 2018-11-24 04:47
19. White-bellied Sunbird, 2018-11-24 04:47
20. Burchell's Coucal, 2018-11-24 04:48
21. Rattling Cisticola, 2018-11-24 04:48
22. Brown-crowned Tchagra, 2018-11-24 04:50
23. Helmeted Guineafowl, 2018-11-24 04:51
24. Black-crowned Tchagra, 2018-11-24 04:51
25. Swainson's Spurfowl, 2018-11-24 04:53
26. Long-billed Crombec, 2018-11-24 04:55
27. Pied Crow, 2018-11-24 04:56
28. Chinspot Batis, 2018-11-24 04:57
29. Blue Waxbill, 2018-11-24 04:59
30. Black Cuckoo, 2018-11-24 05:04
31. Diederik Cuckoo, 2018-11-24 05:07
32. Golden-tailed Woodpecker, 2018-11-24 05:09
33. Chestnut-vented Tit-Babbler, 2018-11-24 05:10
34. Groundscraper Thrush, 2018-11-24 05:12
35. African Pipit, 2018-11-24 05:20
36. Shelley's Francolin, 2018-11-24 05:21
37. Barred Wren-Warbler, 2018-11-24 05:23
38. Southern Masked Weaver, 2018-11-24 05:24
39. Dark-capped Bulbul, 2018-11-24 05:25
40. Orange-breasted Bushshrike, 2018-11-24 05:27
41. Brubru, 2018-11-24 05:27
42. Red-eyed Dove, 2018-11-24 05:27
43. Ashy Tit, 2018-11-24 05:27
44. House Sparrow, 2018-11-24 05:27
45. Cardinal Woodpecker, 2018-11-24 05:27
46. Barn Swallow, 2018-11-24 05:29
47. White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, 2018-11-24 05:30
48. Jacobin Cuckoo, 2018-11-24 05:32
49. African Hoopoe, 2018-11-24 05:32
50. Pearl-breasted Swallow, 2018-11-24 05:33
51. Southern Grey-headed Sparrow, 2018-11-24 05:34
52. Burnt-necked Eremomela, 2018-11-24 05:34
53. Arrow-marked Babbler, 2018-11-24 05:37
54. Spotted Flycatcher, 2018-11-24 05:40
55. Acacia Pied Barbet, 2018-11-24 05:41
56. Bearded Woodpecker, 2018-11-24 05:42
57. Marico Sunbird, 2018-11-24 05:44
58. Red-winged Starling, 2018-11-24 05:44
59. Black Cuckooshrike, 2018-11-24 05:46
60. Black-backed Puffback, 2018-11-24 05:48
61. Red-billed Oxpecker, 2018-11-24 05:50
62. Speckled Mousebird, 2018-11-24 05:50
63. Greater Striped Swallow, 2018-11-24 05:50
64. Violet-backed Starling, 2018-11-24 05:54
65. African Palm Swift, 2018-11-24 06:03
66. Common Myna, 2018-11-24 06:07
67. Fiscal Flycatcher, 2018-11-24 06:09
68. Crested Barbet, 2018-11-24 06:09
69. Bar-throated Apalis, 2018-11-24 06:12
70. Egyptian Goose, 2018-11-24 06:15
71. Spur-winged Goose, 2018-11-24 06:16
72. Sabota Lark, 2018-11-24 06:18
73. Brown-hooded Kingfisher, 2018-11-24 06:20
74. Hadeda Ibis, 2018-11-24 06:21
75. Magpie Shrike, 2018-11-24 06:23
76. Black-chested Prinia, 2018-11-24 06:24
77. Red-backed Shrike, 2018-11-24 06:29
78. Red-breasted Swallow, 2018-11-24 06:34
79. Golden-breasted Bunting, 2018-11-24 06:35
80. Temminck's Courser, 2018-11-24 06:36
81. Great Sparrow, 2018-11-24 06:38
82. Marico Flycatcher, 2018-11-24 06:40
83. Cape Turtle Dove, 2018-11-24 06:46
84. Black-chested Snake Eagle, 2018-11-24 06:48
85. Red-billed Quelea, 2018-11-24 06:51
86. Violet-eared Waxbill, 2018-11-24 07:00
87. Black-faced Waxbill, 2018-11-24 07:05
88. Scaly-feathered Finch, 2018-11-24 07:07
89. Northern Black Korhaan, 2018-11-24 07:16
90. Shaft-tailed Whydah, 2018-11-24 07:21
91. Brown-backed Honeybird, 2018-11-24 07:23
92. Short-clawed Lark, 2018-11-24 07:26
93. Three-banded Plover, 2018-11-24 07:50
94. Blacksmith Lapwing, 2018-11-24 07:50
95. Cape Wagtail, 2018-11-24 07:51
96. Yellow-breasted Apalis, 2018-11-24 07:51
97. Southern Red Bishop, 2018-11-24 07:51
98. Terrestrial Brownbul, 2018-11-24 07:52
99. Streaky-headed Seedeater, 2018-11-24 07:52
100. Wahlberg's Eagle, 2018-11-24 07:53
101. Cape Glossy Starling, 2018-11-24 07:57
102. Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, 2018-11-24 08:05
103. Common Ostrich, 2018-11-24 08:10
104. Neddicky, 2018-11-24 08:15
105. Tawny-flanked Prinia, 2018-11-24 08:29
106. Indian Peafowl, 2018-11-24 08:29
107. Red-faced Cisticola, 2018-11-24 08:38
108. European Bee-eater, 2018-11-24 08:39
109. Lesser Masked Weaver, 2018-11-24 08:42
110. Southern Fiscal, 2018-11-24 08:43
111. Little Swift, 2018-11-24 08:46
112. Amethyst Sunbird, 2018-11-24 08:47
113. Cape Sparrow, 2018-11-24 08:54
114. Red-headed Finch, 2018-11-24 08:55
115. Lanner Falcon, 2018-11-24 08:57
116. Rock Martin, 2018-11-24 08:58
117. Bronze Mannikin, 2018-11-24 09:16
118. Lesser Striped Swallow, 2018-11-24 09:16
119. Black-collared Barbet, 2018-11-24 09:16
120. Karoo Thrush, 2018-11-24 09:17
121. Striated Heron, 2018-11-24 09:17
122. Common Moorhen, 2018-11-24 09:23
123. Cape Weaver, 2018-11-24 09:27
124. Reed Cormorant, 2018-11-24 09:29
125. Black Crake, 2018-11-24 09:29
126. Little Egret, 2018-11-24 09:32
127. Little Rush Warbler, 2018-11-24 09:34
128. Hamerkop, 2018-11-24 09:34
129. White-rumped Swift, 2018-11-24 09:45
130. White-breasted Cormorant, 2018-11-24 09:47
131. Rock Dove, 2018-11-24 09:54
132. Black-shouldered Kite, 2018-11-24 09:58
133. African Sacred Ibis, 2018-11-24 10:01
134. Wood Sandpiper, 2018-11-24 10:03
135. White-throated Swallow, 2018-11-24 10:07
136. Marabou Stork, 2018-11-24 10:15
137. African Fish Eagle, 2018-11-24 10:17
138. Knob-billed Duck, 2018-11-24 10:18
139. White-faced Whistling Duck, 2018-11-24 10:18
140. Black-winged Stilt, 2018-11-24 10:18
141. Red-billed Teal, 2018-11-24 10:19
142. Ruff, 2018-11-24 10:20
143. Yellow-billed Duck, 2018-11-24 10:20
144. Pin-tailed Whydah, 2018-11-24 10:21
145. Common Sandpiper, 2018-11-24 10:22
146. Little Grebe, 2018-11-24 10:23
147. Cape Teal, 2018-11-24 10:28
148. Speckled Pigeon, 2018-11-24 10:29
149. African Jacana, 2018-11-24 10:30
150. White Stork, 2018-11-24 10:33
151. Grey Heron, 2018-11-24 10:34
152. Yellow-billed Kite, 2018-11-24 10:34
153. Black Kite, 2018-11-24 10:36
154. Wattled Starling, 2018-11-24 10:41
155. Green-winged Pytilia, 2018-11-24 10:46
156. White-backed Vulture, 2018-11-24 10:49
157. Abdim's Stork, 2018-11-24 10:50
158. African Paradise Flycatcher, 2018-11-24 11:14
159. Black-headed Heron, 2018-11-24 11:16
160. Lesser Swamp Warbler, 2018-11-24 11:22
161. Namaqua Dove, 2018-11-24 11:33
162. Cape Robin-Chat, 2018-11-24 11:45
163. Red-faced Mousebird, 2018-11-24 11:45
164. Sand Martin, 2018-11-24 11:58
165. African Reed Warbler, 2018-11-24 12:09
166. Spectacled Weaver, 2018-11-24 12:09
167. Black-crowned Night Heron, 2018-11-24 12:10
168. Icterine Warbler, 2018-11-24 12:16
169. Southern Bald Ibis, 2018-11-24 13:08
170. African Spoonbill, 2018-11-24 13:10
171. Glossy Ibis, 2018-11-24 13:10
172. Little Bee-eater, 2018-11-24 13:16
173. Black-throated Canary, 2018-11-24 13:23
174. Whiskered Tern, 2018-11-24 13:27
175. African Wattled Lapwing, 2018-11-24 13:29
176. Squacco Heron, 2018-11-24 13:36
177. African Swamphen, 2018-11-24 13:39
178. Greater Double-collared Sunbird, 2018-11-24 14:44
179. Sombre Greenbul, 2018-11-24 14:45
180. Cape White-eye, 2018-11-24 14:52
181. African Emerald Cuckoo, 2018-11-24 14:53
182. Drakensberg Prinia, 2018-11-24 14:53
183. African Dusky Flycatcher, 2018-11-24 14:54
184. African Stonechat, 2018-11-24 14:57
185. Cape Grassbird, 2018-11-24 14:58
186. Cape Canary, 2018-11-24 15:00
187. Yellow Bishop, 2018-11-24 15:01
188. Alpine Swift, 2018-11-24 15:07
189. African Goshawk, 2018-11-24 15:14
190. Forest Buzzard, 2018-11-24 15:20
191. Dark-capped Yellow Warbler, 2018-11-24 15:21
192. Holub's Golden Weaver, 2018-11-24 15:34
193. Red-knobbed Coot, 2018-11-24 15:34
194. African Pied Wagtail, 2018-11-24 15:38
195. Thick-billed Weaver, 2018-11-24 15:39
196. Long-crested Eagle, 2018-11-24 15:46
197. Orange Ground Thrush, 2018-11-24 15:52
198. African Black Swift, 2018-11-24 15:52
199. Square-tailed Drongo, 2018-11-24 15:55
200. Knysna Turaco, 2018-11-24 16:04
201. Tambourine Dove, 2018-11-24 16:04
202. Olive Bushshrike, 2018-11-24 16:07
203. Grey Cuckooshrike, 2018-11-24 16:08
204. African Olive Pigeon, 2018-11-24 16:17
205. Jackal Buzzard, 2018-11-24 16:24
206. Yellow-fronted Canary, 2018-11-24 16:34
207. Purple-crested Turaco, 2018-11-24 16:39
208. White-browed Robin-Chat, 2018-11-24 16:45
209. Woolly-necked Stork, 2018-11-24 16:45
210. Purple Heron, 2018-11-24 17:02
211. African Black Duck, 2018-11-24 17:12
212. Southern Black Tit, 2018-11-24 17:22
213. Pale Flycatcher, 2018-11-24 17:32
214. Black-headed Oriole, 2018-11-24 17:32
215. Yellow-crowned Bishop, 2018-11-24 17:37
216. Croaking Cisticola, 2018-11-24 17:39
217. Scarlet-chested Sunbird, 2018-11-24 17:46
218. Kurrichane Thrush, 2018-11-24 17:48
219. Village Weaver, 2018-11-24 17:50
220. African Green Pigeon, 2018-11-24 18:05
221. African Darter, 2018-11-24 18:17
222. African Skimmer, 2018-11-24 18:27
223. Common Ringed Plover, 2018-11-24 18:30
224. Spotted Eagle-Owl, 2018-11-24 19:13
225. African Wood Owl, 2018-11-24 20:06


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Latest reply: Nov 27, 2018

Challenges for the Future

I've just read a book by William Shatner about Star Trek and the prospects of us realising some of its technological ideas in the near to distant future. A fun book to read … but thinking about real reality, scientific and technological progress alone won't solve the crisis we're in. Star Trek itself is also about more than technology, there's a big scoop of political and social idealism mixed in. Captain Kirk and Spock live in a time when humans and many aliens have actually solved the pressing problems and now live in societies that actually work. Will that ever happen on Earth and for real? To achieve that, these are some of the problems we need not just to tackle, but to solve.

1. Material and social deprivation and inequality. We are well into the Twenty-First Century and still in most of the world most people live in misery. In Africa, many people are poor, lacking in educational and occupational opportunities. We have squalor and pollution. Even in the prosperous world, we have many people living with the malaise of doing jobs they don't find meaningful, and not having money for important things like vital medical treatment. Work should be a matter of inspiration, not desperation. When people are forced or coerced to do work they don't really want to do, then it is slavery, just as when people are forced or coerced to have sex they don't really want to have, it's rape. We need to re-think our whole economic system – we need to reconsider the assumptions we're working with. Instead of seeing how entities like companies or even countries can gain as much wealth as possible, we need to look at the resources of Planet Earth, at basic human needs, and how we can most economically satisfy them (and without causing other unintended problems). We need to work for a world where everyone has enough and also is satisfied with that.

2. Political incompetence, deception and corruption. I don't know if there's a single ruler or political party in Africa (or maybe even the world) that is not corrupt. At the top, people are making fortunes, out of all kinds of collusion … companies are given carte blanche to exploit, they just need to pay the right people. Africa right now is being stripped of its natural resources, and polluted like you won't believe. And some people are making billions out of this. The money does not at all 'trickle down' to the regular folks, it ends up in the pockets of a small elite. Politics really should be about helping out the typical average folks; the leaders should be no more than their representatives. But this goes along with the previous point. Political leaders, just to get where they are, need to have gained wealth and power, and this alone by the time they reach the top, makes them 'different creatures' from the lowlies who got them there. And almost all of the time, a rich and powerful person cannot fully understand what it's like at the bottom. Even if they rose from humble beginnings … because they will still tend to think that anyone could do the same. They don't have experience of the permanent door-shut-in-your-face effect which marks life for the poor and powerless.

3. Harmony. Harmony between humans, and between humans and animals/plants/nature. Still in the world it's a case of divide and rule. People are not seeing all their fellow people as being the same as themselves; they're divided into friends and enemies. Friends are like us; enemies are who our leaders tell us are enemies. Common people of one country wage war on common people of another country, because their leaders tell them they're enemies. Actually the common people of both countries are very much more alike to each other than they are to their respective leaders; the truth is the leaders are the true enemies. And humans are still at war with the natural world also; we destroy so much of the wilderness, the very same womb that we ourselves were born from. We don't see animals as being living beings with the same right to exist as ourselves. We don't see them as our kin – which they are. We don't realize that the ecology of Planet Earth is a very intricate whole that is vital for sustaining the life of everything on it. We estrange ourselves from our fellow living beings – and ultimately from Life itself. Life is a unitary phenomenon of which we're just a small part. We now serve and worship death, not life. This can have only one end result.

4. Human folly and ignorance. Despite what 'science' knows today, the average person is still shockingly unaware of what is really going on in the world. And scientific knowledge alone won't cut it. The average person needs some kind of guiding philosophy. Not necessarily very complicated. But it needs to give the average person some idea of what 'humanity' knows right now, and perhaps more importantly, what it does not know. The average person needs to know just how much faith to put in science (not extremely much, but a good deal all the same). The average person needs to know how much faith to put in leaders and powerful people and organizations (very little). The average person needs to know much of human psychology and how it is abused by 'leaders' in order to gain, dupe and manipulate followers. I'd say the average person does need some kind of religion. By religion I mean a kind of positivity and optimism that can withstand a lot of negativity, that arms the average person against cynicism and fatalism. It's the hope of everything actually being part of something good and grand. It's a defense against feelings of hopelessness and pointlessness. This must be a religion, a matter of faith, since it's not something that can be proved. But I also think that religion mustn't go too far. We must admit that we have no clue as to what the 'truth' behind our existence and that of the Universe might be. So I'm against religious fundamentalism, the idea that one religion has all the answers and is completely beyond doubt. Religion needs to be able to admit and incorporate doubt. An element that needs to be included is the recognition of the positive value of uncertainty. If we're too certain, we stop learning – we can indeed not learn that we're wrong if we think we can't possibly be wrong, and that is precisely when we ARE wrong. Also the kind of religion I have in mind should not clash with science. Science provides us with amazing knowledge of the nature of the universe we're in. But there are some questions that it probably can never answer, and indeed, that it would be wrong for us to expect it to answer. Science can't tell us 'why' anything exists or 'why' there are laws of physics or 'why' these laws are the way they are, or other ultimate questions of existence. No matter how many scientific laws and principles we come up with, there will still be more questions questioning the grounds of those. And science can't tell us what is good or bad/evil, right or wrong – you can't derive an 'ought' from an 'is' – but also, you shouldn't need to. 'Is' is a matter of finding the facts, which science can do; 'ought' is a matter of judgement, evaluation and constructing systems of principles or ideals, which is what moral philosophy does. The one can inform the other, but they're two different domains. And religion can unite the two. Religion is also necessary to unite the two conflicting aspects of existence, namely objectivity and subjectivity. Objectivity is the mere existence of everything that exists; subjectivity is the existence of a single mind that can probe outward from itself to become aware of everything that exists – its own self as well as the outside world. Every individual mind is a reflection of the entire universe – transformed into a completely unique known, lived and experienced reality. Science can handle objectivity but not subjectivity. And yet, the two are aspects of one and the same reality. A 'leap of faith' can take us beyond the myriads of subjective experiences of reality and postulate a 'real' reality behind it all, and can recognize how the subjective experience of reality is a vital aspect of the objective existence of that which is real.

5. The end result that the world needs is the full empowerment of every individual. And for that we will have to learn how to work together. We will have to realize that we can indeed work together and that our wellbeings all tie together. We need for people to understand first of all how powerful they actually are – and that power comes from the human mind. The mind that understands itself and is disciplined and that actively works to expand its own power and recognizes all the opportunities it has for growth becomes powerful indeed. We also need to be responsible. Like Spiderman's Uncle says. Once we have the power, we need to learn to use it as well as possible. We need to know that we can influence each other, but that must leave us with the sense of responsibility, knowing we can do either good or bad, and committing ourselves to doing good rather than bad. True power is not the power to do bad – that is illusory power – but the power to do good. We have a principle that ensures that – it is called love. Love means reaching out, embracing others, and considering them as being as important as oneself. It also means considering one's own self as being extremely important – without this self-love (not selFISH love) there can't be true love of others. Love is indeed the most powerful principle that exists. And it is real, it is a true kind of 'thing', once again not something science can see and point out and study, but it is there all the same. Without love there is no meaning, there is no happiness, but with love, there is meaning and happiness even in situations that may seem dismal. Love is something that can be taught, that can be nurtured, that can be exercised and made to grow. In the end, this is what we need. Right now we worship power, but it is false power. If we forget about power and start worshiping love, only then shall we discover true power. This power is for the individual but also for the group, it is something that can vitalize entire societies, and indeed all of humanity, all of life on this planet. This in the end must become our one and only goal, and everything else will come along with it.

These goals can't be achieved with science and technology. We need to progress towards them in the sphere of culture and philosophy. We need to introduce them to mass consciousness and then find ways to refine them and make them workable. I've some ideas about how that can be done …

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Latest reply: Nov 15, 2018

Rain and Termites

It's finally raining here! Soft but penetrating rains for much of the day. What proves that this time it's for real, is that the termites were flying. The flying kinds, called alates, are the fertile males and females. The regular kinds are the sterile workers. The alates come out as soon as there is decent rain falling. They can't waste their opportunity on insufficient showers, so somehow they know when the rain is going to be good. The alates fly out of the termite hills in huge numbers; they fly a distance and then drop to the ground, lose their wings and pair up. They dig wherever they find a place to dig in, with a view to starting up a new colony. In the end, only a tiny percentage of the alates who fly out, ever get to establish an actual new colony. That happens if they can avoid predators, find suitable ground close to a food source, dig down deep enough, successfully mate, and then the queen will start producing eggs from which the first workers will hatch. Then these have a go at digging and finding food, and if they are successful, there will be a new colony!

One of the gauntlet of hazards faced by the flying alates is the birds that will target them for food. These fertile insects are plump with fat, because these resources will need to last until the colony actually starts getting in actual food. They are also not very good at flying; they fly only once in their lives and don't seem to have any idea where they want to go. Pretty much every kind of bird will go for them when they're there. It's like raining porridge (an Afrikaans proverb: if it's raining porridge, then you'd better ladle it in). Today in my garden the termites were flying, and the regulars were all after them - an unique moment to see so many species all together: laughing doves, olive thrushes, Cape robin-chats, white-eyes, bronze mannikins, Cape sparrows, Masked weavers, Spectacled weavers, Marico sunbirds - and those only in my own garden!

The alates are also targeted once they've dropped to the ground. They appear to be intent on little else than pairing up - you'll see a pair running around, the one pressed up right to the behind of the other, again with no apparent idea where they're going. Birds will peck them up, but they also provide food for frogs! The little rain frogs over here also come out after the first drenching rains. They gobble up as many termites as they can, so they are fueled for their own reproductive efforts.

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Latest reply: Nov 6, 2018

My fascination with prehistoric life



I was born in Pretoria in 1972. My father and mother both were into books big-time, working in book stores and libraries … my father was an aspiring writer and poet as well. He read poetry to me ('real' poetry by esteemed poets like D. J. Opperman and N. P. van Wyk Louw) before I could speak. He also got me well-illustrated children's books and read them to me. I started reading fairly early, about when I was five years old, asking my dad to explain the alphabet to me and from there on working on figuring it out myself. At around that time I was looking at the comics pages in the newspaper and saw a strange thing in the 'Flintstones' comic. I asked my dad what he was, and he told me it was a dinosaur. I was intrigued.

My dad got a job as a librarian at the Merensky Library, of the University of Pretoria, in the seventies. He began bringing me books from the reference section over the weekends. Knowing I was interested in dinosaurs, he got me some wonderful books illustrated by the great Zdenek Burian. I devoured those, and also other encyclopedias with information on prehistoric life. I was into life all-round; another bunch of books I loved and almost memorized, were the Grzimek animal encyclopedia series. They're lavishly illustrated and very complete encyclopedias, the like of which you don't see anymore (at least, I haven't seen anything like them in a bookstore for many decades now). I rapidly came to understand that life is an incredibly complex phenomenon with a history going back in time and that the entire pattern of life on Earth went through several serious changes. I was fascinated by the idea that things could change, that the 'potential' for different living forms was almost inexhaustible.

My dad also bought me my own books. Again, his connections from earlier work in bookstores came in handy. I was getting well-acquainted with the Van Schaik's bookstore in Pretoria. Back in those days there were many wonderfully-illustrated books available. There were even dinosaur books in Afrikaans. But language wasn't a barrier; by the age of six I was already reading English. In fact I'd even been reading German at that point because that was the language the Grzimek encyclopedias were written in. I remember seeking out every book even just marginally involved with prehistoric life in every library we could find – the Pretoria public library, the Merensky library, and a couple of suburban and school libraries. I even borrowed books and encyclopedias from my friends. We got our own set of encyclopedias in the mid-seventies; there were also substantial sections on dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals in them but the info was already much out of date.

My dad was incredibly supportive. He was also highly artistic. We drew our own reconstructions of prehistoric animals – he was quite good. We also made our own fossils! Using clay, we sculpted trilobites (ancient 'bugs' that lived in the sea and of which vast numbers of fossils are known) and then cast them in plaster-of-Paris and painted them so they looked old. I also tried making a fossil like that of the early bird Archaeopteryx using some feathers from doves, but that wasn't very successful. My dad even got me my own real fossil from a colleague at the University. It was a small chunk of rock with a part of a trilobite in it, as well as some other shells. I still have it, and the scrap of paper with information about it: it was collected from the Koue Bokkeveld Mountains in the Cape; it is likely a species of Phacops; it lived in the Devonian, about 350 million years ago! It was illegal for him to give this fossil away, but it wasn't a particularly important one – the genus Phacops is one of the most abundant of trilobites found.

In 1980, when I was eight, I got what I still consider one of the best-ever Christmas present' I'd received – a book illustrated by Zdenek Burian, called 'Prehistoric Animals and Plants'. Burian, a Czech, worked closely together with Russian paleontologists to create some of the most beautiful paleo-art ever. Even today, though in many ways out of date, the illustrations are incomparable. Most of all they make everything seem completely real. The creatures and their backgrounds look totally natural; these things lived, they functioned well in their own environments. They weren't poorly adapted, they weren't 'primitive', they were simply stages in the history of life; the environments were simply different, and the things were quite well adapted to the way things were back then. Living things have been amazingly sophisticated even many millions of years ago.

Around the same time I also stumbled upon an exhibition of fossils of proto-mammals in the Transvaal Museum. I think they were on loan from the University of Cape Town. For the first time I saw a good collection of actual fossils, the remnants, of these incredible ancient living things. South Africa has a richer treasure-trove of fossils of these proto-mammals than any other country or region in the world. Proto-mammals included not only the ancestors of all mammals but also many groups that went on side journeys in evolution, yielding many bizarre 'experiments' … and yet, each one did fit well in its own time and place and was a miraculous manifestation of life. Apart from the fossils there was also a book in the museum store, which my father bought for me – 'Fossielreptiele van die Suid-Afrikaanse Kaoo' ('Fossil Reptiles of the South-African Karoo') by M. A. Cluver. This too became one of my own most cherished possessions.

That's how it got started. Since then I've read a vast number of further books, I've done a great amount of research online, into life during the past of this planet. To me, we have to know our past so as to understand our present and have an idea of possibilities for the future. Life is a whole. We are part of the pattern of life on our planet. We arose by the laws of life, and those laws determine where we shall go in the future. We need to understand that we are not alone in being important. All other living things are as important as we are. It all forms a pattern. The life that exists right now is just a tiny, tiny slice of the full diversity of life that has existed – and even so, we know next to nothing about that tiny slice which is the life of the present. There is vastly more that we do not know, than what we do know. Then there's the life of the future. As diverse as life has been, the possibilities open for the future include an even greater diversity. Our planet might continue hosting life for a billion, two billion or perhaps up to four and a half billion more years. And what about life on other planets? I am sure there must be a lot of life out there. Maybe not much intelligent life … heck, we still have to prove that there's intelligent life on Earth! But life, all the same. And all life is part of the same cosmic pattern, it's a single phenomenon. All life 'out there' will be kin to the life down here, will also develop and proceed according to the laws of life that determine what's possible, what's feasible – and that is a vast, vast lot more than most people could ever imagine. The last word as to what life is, how it gets started, where it is going, and what its ultimate meaning and value is, has yet to be said, but in order to have any chance of ever saying it, we not only need to study life in all its forms through all its history, but we also need to appreciate and cherish life. In the end it is utterly unique, it is complex and fascinating, it is a treasure without measure.

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Latest reply: Oct 25, 2018


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