Monday, June 29, 2009

The Flamingos of the Everglades

There is a large flock of flamingos currently living in the backcountry of the Everglades. You can't get to them except by paddle boat. I found out about this flock through an acquaintance paddler, Bob Quirk. Bob is one of the volunteers working to clear the Bear Lake Trail. In fact, the Sun Sentinel ran a story about these guys:,0,4874018.story. Check it out for a very interesting story.

A few weeks ago Bob posted some photos he shot of the birds on a website devoted to the work being done by the volunteers. He also invited me to go back in with him so that I could photograph these magnificent birds. Of course I took him up on his offer. We planned to meet at the Flamingo marina and then drive to the launch site on Buttonwood canal (off the Bear Lake Rd). From there, we would paddle approximately 3 miles to get to the area where the flamingos were last sited. The drive from the marina was about 1 1/2 miles of dirt road speckled quite generously with water-filled pot holes deep enough for a good size gator to cool off during the day. We arrived at the launch site at dusk and the mosquitos were there en masse to greet us. Here it is the middle of June and I was completely covered head to toe. In addition to a bug jacket and hood, I wore the following: heavy nylon pants with elastic bands around ankles, sneakers, wool socks, long sleeve cotton shirt, heavy knit gloves and a wide brimmed hat. I froze my camelback bladder the night before and placed it inside a backpack holder which I put on before donning the mosquito jacket. Not only did this allow me to access the drinking port at any time without undoing the hood, but it also helped keep me cool.

We arrived at the area where Bob spotted the flamingos earlier and they were not there. Nor were they in another spot he had seen them. My heart sunk thinking I had missed the flamingos. We continued paddling as the morning sun continued to rise but still early enough to be perfect for photographing. About 20 minutes later I looked to the right on the other side of land point and noticed several very large colorful birds in the distant. There they were, about 16 of them along a grassy mud bank lining the water. I slowly and quietly paddled closer and eventually got within a hundred feet or so of them.
Fantastic! I had never seen flamingos in the wild and never realized how large they are. Standing upright, I'm guessing the largest of the group stood over 5 feet tall easily. There were 2 deep orange colored flamingos that were larger than the rest of the members of the group. They seemed to invite interactions with the others on occasion. The interaction would begin usually with one bird coming up to the larger bird with what looked like a kiss. Upon closer inspection of the photographs, it appears to be biting and not kissing. They would interact, beak to beak for a short period and then move on. More than a few times I watched 3 or 4 get into a similar interaction. One of the group was always a larger bird who would receive pecks from 1 or 2 others, sometimes on the beak, sometimes on its torso.

It might possibly be breeding season for these birds. I referred to the Sibley's book and learned that they mostly feed at night except during breeding season. And they breed only in years when the environmental conditions are right for raising their young. For months they go through their breeding stage with lots of groups displays of breeding behaviors, which is what I believe I witnessed. They are a gregarious bird, displaying and nesting in groups. Nests are built close together on mudflats.

Flamingos take on features of several other types of birds. They are tall like herons, have webbed feet like ducks and, here's a new one for me, they secrete a milk-like substance to feed their young, like pigeons. They are omnivorous and feed on insects, crustaceans, and algae among other things. They filter their prey from shallow water but can also capture larger animals with their beaks. In the dry season, they can consume mud and extract the nutrients from it. For feeding they primarily submerge their heads upside down and facing backward.

They are a very loud bird. They make a sound similar to the great egret or heron, but only louder and hardier. They were quite noisy at times and other times only an occasional squack could be heard. They were busily feeding when I found them and it appeared that at any given time half of the group would have heads submerged while the other half would be looking about. Once, something got the group's attention and they simultaneously stood upright and faced the same direction. During feeding I watched one bird move its legs back and forth quickly in the water, similar to what a snowy egret might do when foraging.

Bob and I hung out with the group for a couple hours, watching these fascinating birds. What a privilege to see them and amazing that they allowed me a close look at their community. The Everglades always presents something new.
It is my understanding that this area will become more easily accessible to the casual tourist soon. If this is the case, I only hope that these birds are nesting in a safe area and that they, along with all the other animals I spotted this day will not be encroached upon to the point they have no choice but to move on.

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