PINK WAVE
BBC Wildlife|November 2021
Thousands of leggy birds flock at the coastal lagoons of Yucatán in south-east Mexico to feed and breed. Meet the fiery Caribbean flamingos
CATHERINE SMALLEY

Take off

When Caribbean flamingos move en masse, they make a huge visual impact. And an aural one too, with excited honking cries that signal the imminent ascent, then the beating of powerful wings nearly 2m wide as the birds fly between breeding, feeding and sleeping sites. Adults stay within Yucatán, but juveniles can venture beyond Mexico to the USA, the Bahamas, Cuba and the Caiman Islands.

Look out

Raccoons, jaguars and crocodiles pose a threat to flamingos, but safety is found in numbers. While some have their heads down to feed, others keep a beady eye out for lurking predators. Like whales, these birds are filter-feeders, and contained within their impressive-looking, aquiline beaks is a syringe-like mechanism that sucks up water and strains out food such as algae and small crustaceans.

Colony copulation

“There are a ton of things that are not known about flamingos, but we believe they have a different breeding partner each year,” says Claudio. Courtship and mating happens at scale, with synchronised hormone release ensuring that breeding and nesting occurs at the same time across the colony.

Bird city

An aerial view of Ría Lagartos helps us appreciate the scale of this flamingo festival. Designated a UNESCO site, the 60,348ha reserve, encompassing wetlands, marshes and a lagoon, is the most important nesting location of the Caribbean flamingo. If you look closely, you can see small circles, which are some of the roughly 20,000 mounded mud nests they return to each year. “They need a very specific type of mud, quantity of water and a low risk of flooding,” says Claudio. “Plus, an islet in the middle of the lagoon protects them from predators.”

Slowly does it

Flamingos are very sensitive to human disturbance, so Claudio could only approach them crawling on all fours, under a camo throw-over sheet and the cover of darkness. “As a photographer, you have to be very, very careful not to incite panic, because if one bird flies, the whole colony can go, and the birds can break their legs or abandon their nests forever,” he says.

Joint effort

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