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The Secret Life of Flamingos: Conservation Photographer Captures Mesmerizing Images of Mexico’s Iconic Bird

Written by Rebecca Cairns, CNN

Since the age of four, photographer Claudio Contreras Koob has been obsessed with flamingos: their vibrant pink feathers, curved horn-like beaks and sleek, poised necks.

Born and raised in Mexico City, Koob visited the Yucatán Peninsula every year during school vacations. His father built a house on the sand dunes in the port village of Chuburná, between the sea and the wetlands, and together they watched colonies of flamingos congregate in the stretching lagoons and muddy swamps. for miles behind the house.

“It was a really nice sight when we could see a mass of pink-orange birds in the distance,” says Koob. “It stuck in my memory.”

The Caribbean flamingo is “iconic” of the Yucatán Peninsula, where its father is from, says Koob, appearing on beach towels, pool inflatables, patio furniture and even salt wrappers pink. But despite its popularity, in Yucatán and beyond, little is known about its movements and biology, he says.

The Caribbean flamingo lives in salty wetlands and coastal waters of Mexico, the United States, and the Caribbean. Credit: Claudio Contreras Koob / Nature Image Library

Now, decades after his first sightings of this “iconic bird”, Koob shares his passion in a new photography book, “Flamingo”, published last month.

Koob hopes his intimate portraits of the bird will help others “fall in love with flamingos” and inspire them to care about the wetlands where they live.

From lab to lens

Koob’s childhood fascination with nature led him to study wildlife biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he took a course in microphotography and discovered “what the language of photography could do,” he said.

Combining his passions, Koob focused on conservation photography when he left college. He joined the International League of Conservation Photographers who in 2009 asked him to capture the marking of flamingo chicks in Yucatán.

With support from Mexico’s flamingo conservation program, run by Fundación Pedro y Elena Hernández since 2015, Koob has spent several years collecting the images that make up his book. He says the biggest challenge was getting close to nesting birds.

“If you disturb one, they start screaming and flying away, and you can cause a panic. They might drop all the eggs and abandon the colony,” says Koob.

The Secret Life of Flamingos: Conservation Photographer Captures Mesmerizing Images of Mexico’s Iconic Bird

Koob has spent years gaining the trust of flamingos so he can photograph their nesting colonies and young chicks. Credit: Claudio Contreras Koob / Nature Image Library

Koob says his “slow approach” to photography has allowed him to piece together intimate images of the flamingos. He often wore camouflage, the army crawling over muddy ground to approach birds without startling them.

On some occasions he took a boat out to the lagoons before dawn so that the birds would get used to his presence at sunrise, and stayed until nightfall. “It’s tough, with the sun and 40 degrees (heat),” says Koob. “It is very consuming for the body.”

Pretty in pink

Unlike humans, flamingos are well adapted to their extreme environment.

Gathering in groups known as flamboyance, flamingos generally live in brackish water, but some inhabit alkaline “soda lakes” filled with water so rich in soda ash that it would irritate or burn the skin of most animals.
The Secret Life of Flamingos: Conservation Photographer Captures Mesmerizing Images of Mexico’s Iconic Bird

Flamingos use their hooked beaks to feed on shrimp, molluscs and algae rich in carotenoids, the pigment that gives them their pink coloring. Credit: Claudio Contreras Koob / Nature Image Library

Here, flamingos encounter few predators or other birds competing for food. Flamingos should consume 10 percent of their body weight per day, Koob says. It is therefore important to have long and undisturbed feeding times.

Their diet includes algae, shrimp, and molluscs that contain high amounts of carotenoids — the same pigments that give fruits and vegetables like carrots, pumpkins, and tomatoes their color — and are responsible for their bright pink appearance. characteristic of the flamingo, explains Koob.

Wetlands under threat

The conservation of flamingos has been a priority for Mexico since the 1970s and 1980s, when it established two Federal Wetland Reserves on the Yucatán Peninsula, later designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.

Ría Lagartos to the east is where flamingos nest and breed, while on the western border of Yucatán, Ría Celestún is an important feeding site. Additional reserves established by the local Yucatán government mean nearly all of the peninsula’s wetlands are protected, Koob says.
Flamingo numbers have increased since the parks were established, Koob says. Based on the number of nests at the Ría Lagartos breeding colony, the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) estimates that there were around 30,000 adult birds in 2021.
But these reserves do not offer complete protection, he says. Agrochemicals used in mountainous regions cross underwater river systems and pollute wetlands, and although reserves are meant to be protected from urban development, Koob says there are still cases of illegal construction and disposal. garbage.
The Secret Life of Flamingos: Conservation Photographer Captures Mesmerizing Images of Mexico’s Iconic Bird

Up to 50,000 tourists come to see the flamingos every year at Ría Celestún (pictured) – although Koob warns it could disrupt their eating habits Credit: Claudio Contreras Koob / Nature Image Library

Climate change and rising sea levels are threatening the habitat of the flamingo, and tourism is also having an impact. While the nesting colony is closed to tourists, up to 50,000 visitors come to see the flamingos in Celestún each year, which can disrupt their eating habits. Authorities have introduced regulations to limit the number of tourists, Koob says, adding that it is too early to know whether the caps will be sufficient.

Now Koob is back in Yucatán, staying at his childhood vacation home in Chuburná, photographing the wetlands. This time his focus is on horseshoe crabs and he hopes he can continue to bring more attention to the wildlife and communities that live there.

“For most people, the wetland is like a stinky, dark, scary place. But it’s full of wonders – and the flamingo is just one of them,” says Koob.


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