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