Spring

11 10 2020

Normally I find going out to Mazowe to get import permits a bit of a chore but not this time. I guess I was just too pleased to get out of Harare and it’s farcical Covid lock-down. I took my time on the 20 minute drive to watch the countryside go by.

It’s desperately dry at this time of year despite being spring. The musasa tree (Brachystegia speciformis) colours were finished, they are spectacular for just a few weeks, and there was little evidence of the fire devastation normally found across the sub-region at this time of year. The image shown below indicates that other countries are ablaze as usual (that’s Zimbabwe in the middle of the image).

Sizeable fires in the sub-region (CSIR AFIS website)

The image comes off the AFIS website and is worth a look as it covers most of the world and offers fire prediction services.

The Plant Protection Research Institute in the Mazowe valley was quiet and had all the usual Covid screening processes in place. The trees in the car-park were in full bloom and were in a frenzy of bird activity.

Schotia brachypetala flowers. Everything loves them!

A member of staff helpfully identified the tree as a member of the Schotia genus (I found out later it was brachypetala species) which is indigenous so I stopped to have a look at the birds. There were at least 3 species of sunbird (nectar feeders) including the scarlet chested sunbird, the amethyst sunbird and the miombo double-collared sunbird and several other species I couldn’t identify. They were having a great old time with not a small bit of squabbling. The flowers were thick with bees and other nectar feeding insects too – not surprising as very little else around was in flower.

Having handed in my application for cotton seed importation from Israel (for a colleague who has business interests in the crop) I set about collecting a few seeds scattered around on the pavement. The gate guard soon came over to see what I was doing and offered to help. Curiously, the trees were in full bloom and producing seed from the previous season at the same time. The seeds have a fleshy aril (not shown) which is attractive to birds and the flowers are also eaten by monkeys. We live in a garden that has space for a few more trees so hopefully I’ll be around to see the tree seed grow out and form attractive flowering trees – apparently they grow quite quickly.

Schotia brachypetala trees in bloom

The gate guard waved a cheery goodbye with her covid mask around her chin. The indifferent police at the roadblock on the edge of Harare were similarly nonchalant – masks in various states of misalignment – along with most Zimbabweans who have shown scant regard for social distancing and frequently don’t wear masks at all. As of writing this Covid-19 has brushed us only lightly and has all but disappeared from the local news. As of 7th October there were officially 229 Covid-19 deaths. Given the disastrous state of the country’s medical health system this is almost certainly a low figure.

Earlier this week I drove past St Anne’s Hospital which was converted at not inconsiderable expense to a Covid-19 specialty hospital. There were all of 4 cars in the car park in the doctors only area and none in the visitors’ area. I’ve heard, unreliably, that there have been all of 7 cases that have gone through the hospital.

I covered possible reasons why the covid-19 impact might not be heavy in Where’s the Covid-19? post. Which aspect, if any, of this prediction might be true I’m not prepared to speculate but in the light of the lack of cases even the government has decided to relax travel restrictions.

It’s not officially over but…

Goodness knows the tourist industry needs all the help it can get but for many businesses it will be too late and I suspect only the most adventurous foreign tourists will travel in the absence of a proven vaccine.

The Zimbabwean economy still faces many challenges independent of a virus pandemic. It is almost entirely self-inflicted. The central bank and the Finance Minister are still trying to manipulate the laws of economics (and by extension mathematics) by controlling the exchange rate of the local dollar with the US dollar. Officially it’s around 81 of the local to 1 US$. Few if anyone is actually using that. It’s possible in theory to buy the hard currency on a government-controlled fortnightly auction (the rate is fixed) but actually getting the greenbacks is a challenge. The company my bookkeeper works for successfully bid for a tranche of US dollars but so far nothing has materialised.

It is perfectly legal to trade in US dollars or Zimbabwean dollars. The foreign ones are well circulated to the extent that they wouldn’t be acceptable in a first world country. However I’m occasionally surprised by the appearance of brand new, sequentially numbered notes.

The real stuff and new to boot!

Small denominations are, not surprisingly, difficult to find to the extent that businesses may ask one to pay the smaller amounts in local currency as they don’t have change.

The jacaranda trees that are ubiquitous in Harare are in full flower right now. They are showy, the bees love them and they care not a whit for Zimbabwe’s economy.

Jacaranda mimosifolia in full bloom

While I do have a preference for indigenous trees I don’t mind the jacaranda. It’s useful to the bees producing a mild, pale honey and is fantastic wood to work with if a bit dull. The flowers don’t do well in the rains and the roads become a carpet of mauve flowers that pop under the car wheels.

There’s rain around at the moment. It’s a bit early for the real season which starts mid November (usually) but it’s still welcome even if the early storms tend to be violent often with hail. So far it’s done a fair job of missing us.

The season ahead is looking promising.

https://iri.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/figure1.png
ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation (Columbia University)

If the la Niña forecast comes to be, as is indicated above, we stand a good chance of better than average rainfall over the next 5 months. Goodness knows we need it but it’s never as simple as the charts make out. More than a few times over the past 20 years that I’ve had my nursery business it’s been a disappointment. It doesn’t make that much difference to my business – commercial horticulture in this part of the world is dependent on a good irrigation system for success. Still, we’d like to have a good season to replenish our borehole in the garden. The rain gauge is out on its stand already – here’s hoping.

(el Niño conditions are indicated by warm currents off the coast of the Galapagos Islands (eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean) and commonly cause drought in this part of the world. La Niña conditions are the opposite and indicate wetter than usual conditions – see What is el Niño?)





The odd couple

22 12 2019

One I recognized immediately – it was a crowned crane. I’ve never seen one in this area so was more than a bit taken aback but they are very distinctive birds. Quite tall, elegant as cranes always are and the distinctive yellow gold crown of feathers on the head adding a touch of glamour. It did a little bow to its companion, an attempt at a courtship ritual perhaps, but the companion was certainly not a crowned crane! “Stupid bird” I thought, “she’s not even one of yours”. I passed the binoculars over to Marianne and pointed out the characteristic “crown” of the crowned crane. “And the other one’s a white stork” I added. But there was a niggling thought that there was something not right about its colouring. There was too much black on it for a start and I didn’t often see white storks up close through binoculars. Anyway, we needed to press on – the dogs were getting bored and I didn’t want them to get the idea of chasing the birds.

I was still bothered by the bird I’d identified as a white stork when we got home so I got out the oracle, actually an app on my iPad for Roberts Birds, when I got home. There, on the same page as the crowned crane, was a bird that looked remarkably like the one I’d identified as a white stork – except it was a wattled crane. I was intrigued and more than a bit excited. I hadn’t seen one of these since I was a teenager growing up in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe.

I decided to be cautious; rather than announce to the electronic world that I’d seen a rare bird (they are listed as critically endangered in southern Africa), I’d go back and try and get photos with a good camera and telephoto lens. I was certain about the crowned crane so decided to ask Ant Fynn, who knows about birds, if they were common around Harare. He said no, not at all, since we’d lost a lot of wetland around the city. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself by mentioning the wattled crane as I’m no expert and haven’t seen one for 40 years. So after a brief executive meeting with the managing director of my company, me, we decided that decisive photographic evidence of these birds was far more important than work and I headed out with my trusty Nikon and not-so-big telephoto lens.

Crowned crane on the left, wattled on the right. Despite the size and species difference they did appear to be a pair.

I found them easily enough on a small stock dam some 600m from the morning’s sighting. It didn’t take a moment to positively identify the wattled crane. This time I contacted Ken who is a semi-professional birder and he was as excited as I was. I got the photographic proof, which showed the limitations of my telephoto lens at its limits (I did know that it’s not the best on the market but didn’t realize it was THAT limited), and had to be satisfied with that as the cranes would just not let me close. Curiously they appeared to be behaving as a couple.

Ken was as pleased as I was though he thought they would soon be moving on. The pairs of wattled cranes that bred on the dams of my youth returned for many years to the same site and often used the same nest. They were not often successful; I can still remember the excitement of my parents when a chick hatched and the disappointment when it disappeared prematurely. I think that often otters were responsible for raiding the eggs and any number of other predators could have got to the chicks.

Several of the birding community contacted me over the following days wanting to get the wattled crane on their check list. Asher was particularly pleased as he’d not seen one either since he was a youngster and also commented on their pair-like behaviour as did some others. Was it choice or happenstance? We’ll never know. We didn’t seem them again on Friday’s dog exercising so I guess they have moved on now.

Majestic in flight too. They have moved on. Wattled cranes need around 300ha of suitable foraging area to breed successfully.