Open your eyes and you’ll see clouds of pink! Thousands of flamingos nest in the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in the state of Yucatán, one of the natural wonders of the Maya World and Mexico, read more in our trip report.
The setting sun gilded the flamingos turning them to molten copper and the only sound was the whisper of their wings carried on the breeze. I was on the Gulf coast of the Yucatán and the flamingos were flying east, towards the Ria Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. These regal birds travel great distances, fanning out along the shoreline during the day in search of food and returning to roost in the reserve as dusk falls.
Early next morning, I made my way to the village of Río Lagartos in search of more flamingos. As I waited on the waterfront for the local guide who was going to take me on a boat trip through the reserve, I watched the sun sparkling on the waters of the estuary and listened to the cries of the gulls. Pelicans and cormorants were already perching on the fishing boats, waiting patiently for the chance of an easy breakfast. Nearby, a great egret stood motionless in the shallows on the look out for an unwary fish.
Rio Lagartos, Wetland Home to 365 Bird Species, including Flamingos
Rio Lagartos, or Reserva de la Biosfera de Ria Lagartos as it is officially known, is a 60,348-hectare reserve of mangroves, marshes, estuaries, salt flats, dunes, beaches, dry forest and jungle straddling the north coast of the Yucatan. It was the
first area of marshland in Mexico to receive global attention
and to be included on the UNESCO RAMSAR list of internationally important and fragile wetlands. The Mexican government declared it a biosphere reserve in 1979 to protect its incredible biodiversity: 365 recorded bird species, 58 mammals, including the jaguar, ocelot and spider monkey, 95 reptiles and amphibians and 523 species of plants. This stretch of the Gulf coast is the most important nesting site in the world for the endangered hawksbill turtle or tortuga carey, but the reserve is famous for having the largest nesting colony of American or Caribbean flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) in the wild.
Apart from Rio Lagartos, flamingos can also be seen in the Celestun Biosphere Reserve on the west coast of the Yucatan or feeding in lagoons along the Gulf coast. Elsewhere, the American flamingo is found in the Bahamas, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Bonaire, the Galapagos Islands, Colombia, Venezuela and Guyana. Three other species of flamingo are found in the Americas: the Andean, Chilean and James flamingos inhabit volcanic lakes in the barren wastes of the high Andes.
Exploring Rio Lagartos
My Rio Lagartos guide untied his boat from its moorings and we set off along the estuary and into the ria, a channel winding through the mangrove forest. There were birds everywhere I looked: a hunting osprey, a roseate spoonbill startled from its cover as we passed its roost, swallows skimming the water to catch flies and even a flock of chattering parrots overhead. I spotted ibis, a green kingfisher, frigate birds and a peregrine falcon. Herons were everywhere – there are 16 species of heron and egret in the Yucatan – and I saw green, blue and tricolored herons, reddish, snowy and white egrets along just one short stretch of the waterway.
The boatman motioned for me to keep silent and gestured towards the mangroves. A Morelet crocodile was concealed among the tree roots, only its powerful jaws visible above the water. A rare sighting nowadays, crocodiles or “lagartos” in Spanish used to be so common in the area that they gave the reserve its name Rio Lagartos.
The ria began to widen and the mangroves receded. Suddenly we were in a stretch of shallower water and surrounded by flocks of flamingos that turned the horizon pink. Some were feeding, following the flock leader in single file to the choicest spots, others were preening their feathers and wherever I looked I could see birds taking to the wing only to land in another part of the lagoon. The flamingos share their feeding grounds with flocks of white pelicans, skimmers, cormorants, herons and a variety of other waders. The view was breathtaking and the air was filled with a deafening chorus of squawks, croaks and honks.
Watching the Flamingos
You can spend hours observing flamingos. With their lanky legs, high-steeping gait and huge beaks, they are somewhat comical, but altogether fascinating. Watching them search for food is particularly intriguing. They feed with their heads upside down, underwater, moving their beaks from side to side in a sweeping motion as they walk forward. They stir up the mud, sieving it with their spine-covered tongues and extracting minute crustaceans. Sometimes they stamp their feet in a circle to stir the silt up. Biologists have discovered that the even more vivid salmon pink plumage of the Yucatan flamingos is the result of a diet based on tiny brine shrimps and crustaceans found only in this area.
Large flocks of flamingos can often be spotted foraging in lagoons between Progreso and Telchac, in Bocas de Dzilam, around the island of Holbox in the Yum Balam Reserve, El Palmar Reserve and especially in Celestun, where thousands of them winter. Small numbers of flamingos have also been recorded in Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in central Quintana Roo and the Los Petenes Biosphere Reserve in Campeche. Several years ago, one ringed bird from Rio Lagartos was spotted in the Everglades National Park and two turned up in Cuba.
Salt from the Yucatan
We left the flamingos to their search for food and continued on our journey, as far as the boat could venture into the shallows, to the saltpans of Las Coloradas. In this barren landscape salt evaporates naturally under the fierce tropical sun, turning shades of pink, red and purple almost as brilliant as the flamingos. The ancient Maya were the first to extract salt in the area and it was one of the most important trade commodities for the coastal communities of the Yucatan in the pre-Hispanic period.
In 1946, the Yucatan Salt Company began commercial exploitation of the salt pans on a stretch of the coast to the east of Las Coloradas.
As we walked across the barren flats, my guide pointed out a horseshoe crab hiding under a rock in one pool; these strange creatures that bear no resemblance to the crabs we are used to, are some of the oldest life forms on the planet and are now an endangered species. Some guides also swear by the therapeutic properties of the salt-rich clay and encourage visitors to try it themselves and see how it softens their skin!
Caution, Flamingos Nesting
We headed back to the boat but could not go any further along the estuary on this occasion. During the flamingo breeding season, the remote nesting sites at El Cuyo in the eastern part of the reserve are off limits to visitors. The flamingo mating ritual begins in the spring with strange courtship dances and once the male finds a mate, the pair retreats to the salt flats of El Cuyo in late April or early May to build strange pedestal nests sculpted from mud where the females lay one egg. It is important that the birds are left in peace at this time, if they are disturbed when they are selecting their nest site, they may not nest at all. And they face other challenges too. Biologists estimate that up to 50 percent of the eggs may be lost during the season. Adult flamingos will abandon their eggs if they are frightened and nests can be flooded during heavy rain. Predators such as raccoons, wild dogs, birds of prey and even jaguars also feast on flamingo eggs and fledglings.
Adults raise their offspring on a soup of regurgitated crustaceans and fresh water until the chick’s salt glands are fully developed. Congregating in “nursery flocks,” for mutual protection while the adults are off foraging, flamingo chicks are grayish brown and do not acquire their smart pink plumage for months after they have begun to feed on their own. During the summer, biologists working for the Niños y Crias conservation group, park wardens and volunteers patrol the nesting areas counting and tagging the birds and rescuing abandoned or weak chicks to raise them by hand.
On the return journey through the estuary I noticed how nervous the flamingos are, the slightest noise or movement is enough to cause panic in the flock and for thousands of birds to take to the air. Low flying aircraft or boats that get too close with their motors still running frighten the birds. It may look like a great photo opportunity but research shows that this stresses the birds and disrupts their feeding habits, and for a bird that spends up to 70 percent of its day feeding this is a serious threat. Local conservationists and state officials have been working with the inhabitants of both Rio Lagartos and Celestun reserves to get them to respect a minimum viewing distance of 50 meters and to cut their motors when they pass flocks.
Back to Shore
On our return journey, my guide pointed out a reddish egret in flight, the jewel-like plumage of a shy purple gallinule in the reeds and a turkey vulture circling lazily overhead on the afternoon updrafts. A little blue heron darted out from the mangroves in front of the boat as the clapboard houses of Rio Lagartos came into view and my voyage ended.
It was time for a late lunch of fresh fish and shrimp in a waterfront restaurant in the nearby village of San Felipe, a Gulf coast fishing community of colorful wooden houses lining sandy lanes that lead towards a peaceful beach.
Later when clouds rimmed in rose and gold covered a darkening sky; I watched a pair of black-necked stilts searching for food as flamingos dipped their wings in salute. A day in Ria Lagartos always ends the way it begins… with birds.
If you go to Rio Lagartos
Rio Lagartos is a three and a half hour drive from Cancun via the toll road (longer if you take Highway 180) to Valladolid and then Highway 295 to the coast, via Tizimín. Local fishermen offer trips along the estuary, usually lasting two or three hours. Longer trips can also be arranged.
Wear a hat, sunglasses and sun block and drink plenty of bottled water. Don’t forget your camera and always carry spare chips, a recharger and extra batteries! Binoculars and a bird guide or checklist will also come in handy and you can even download a bird identification app for your smart phone or tablet. If you are staying in the Yucatan for longer, you may also wish to visit Celestun, one and a half hours to the west of Merida via Highway 281
You’ll see birds at any time of the day at Rio Lagartos but remember that they are more plentiful at daybreak and also at sunset when they fly back to their roosts. If you are a seasoned birdwatcher, the best time to visit is during the winter months when the reserve also welcomes hundreds of thousands of migrant birds from the United States and Canada. Shore birds such as sandpipers, waders and waterfowl, songbirds, birds of prey and even hummingbirds make the dangerous and long Gulf crossing, which can take them up to 18 hours, to the Yucatán Peninsula. Some species spend all winter in Río Lagartos, while others stay only a few days to feed and recover from their journey before continuing south.
Protecting the Flamingos
For centuries, the American flamingo was hunted for food and its striking plumage, and captured by collectors for aviaries and zoos. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the soldier who wrote an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortes’ campaign to conquer Mexico in 1519-1521, reported seeing flamingos in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan where they were kept in an aviary for Emperor Moctezuma’s pleasure. Nowadays, habitat destruction, the draining of wetlands and pollution have caused a decline in flamingo numbers throughout the Caribbean, placing the bird on the endangered species list. The Yucatán flamingo population is also under threat. It rallied from a low of 5,000 birds in 1956 to 30,000 in 2002 and although more recent estimates put it at over 40,000, much remains to be done in the fight to save them.
The problems facing Rio Lagartos include deforestation, habitat fragmentation, unregulated fishing and highway and breakwater construction. Tourist boats and low flying aircraft can disturb the birds; contaminated water, electricity pylons and hurricanes also pose great dangers to birds, feeding and nesting areas. Other endangered species such as the jaguar and ocelot also fall victim to poachers. The situation in Celestun is similar but problems there are exacerbated by greater population growth.
In recent years, Mérida-based universities, research centers and conservation groups such as Niños y Crias, Pronatura and CAPY have been working with the inhabitants of Rio Lagartos on a variety of projects ranging from reforestation, conservation of key areas, efficient land management, flamingo, turtle and jaguar research and protection, environmental education and sustainable development.
Active in Rio Lagartos and Celestun, Niños y Crias has a flamingo ringing program, which enables its biologists to study feeding migrations along the coast and breeding. An annual aerial census and monthly counts from a boat are carried out. The group also works with reserve wardens, other organizations and local people to protect flamingo feeding and nesting areas.
Environmental education with the goal of changing the mentality of residents and visitors alike is crucial. Pronatura and Niños y Crias are both working with communities in the reserve and along the coast to teach them about the importance of their environment, its fragility and the need to use resources in a sustainable way. The development of eco tourism is one way to provide the inhabitants of villages such as Rio Lagartos with an alternative source of income and in recent years many local people have been trained as birding guides by CAPY, a Mérida-based program of Amigos de Sian Ka’an A.C.
Thomas More Travel offers trips to Rio Lagartos (small groups only) and a day trip that combines a visit to the reserve with a trip to the ancient Mayan city of Ek Balam, information: www.thomasmoretravel.com Birding trips can also be arranged on request.