In December last year, we were driving along the M5 (otherwise known as the Black River Parkway), when we happened to see a large flock of flamingoes wading along the middle of the Black River, which runs along the edge of Oude Molen Eco Village.
As this is an unusual sight, and definitely one worth documenting, we quickly drove home to fetch the camera, and returned to the bridge. Luckily, the traffic wasn’t too heavy, so we were able to pull over safely onto a small sandy patch next to the road.
We carefully made our way towards the edge of the river, nudging through waist-high vegetation in places. It was impossible to get close to the water, because of the impenetrably dense and sometimes quite spiky and sharp-edged grasses – and I was wearing shorts and slip-slops on my bare feet, which was not that clever! Thank goodness for the zoom lens.
There are six species of flamingoes in the world – four of them occur in the Americas, and two in Africa and Asia. These are the Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) (found in parts of of Africa, Southern Europe, and Southern and Southwestern Asia), and the Lesser Flamingo (Phoenicopterus minor) (found in Africa along the Great Rift Valley, as well as in Northwestern India).
These ones were Greater Flamingoes, which are the largest species: they are usually about 110-150 cm tall, and weigh between 2 and 4 kg. This group was wading along the middle of the river, which surprised me a little, as I’d thought the water would be too deep there. As flamingoes have very long and skinny legs, though, they were able to stand, with the water only occasionally lapping against their stomach feathers. Perhaps there was a sand-bank there?
Flamingoes are such elegant birds, with their s-shaped long necks and strangely curved beaks. They are filter-feeders and dunk their beaks upside down into the water to separate mud and silt from the food they eat. The mandibles are lined with hair-like structures called lamellae, which are used to filter out the food.
They eat algae, aquatic plants, worms, insect larvae, small molluscs and crustaceans. The carotenoid proteins in animal and plant plankton are broken down into pigments by their liver enzymes, which gives flamingoes their characteristic pink or reddish plumage.
“Greater Flamingos spend most of the day standing in shallow water with their head down filtering the water through the sieve-like lamellae of their beaks. Their thick fleshy tongue acts as a plunger to suck the water and food into the mouth, and then forcing just the water back out. The nearly dry bolus of food is drawn into the back of the mouth to be swallowed at the same time the next mouthful of water is drawn in.” (SA Venues website)
We could see the reddish wing coverts, and the black primary and secondary flight feathers, when they spread their wings. Their bills were slightly pink, with a black tip. Lesser Flamingoes, in case you ever have to tell them apart, have an almost entirely black beak with a reddish bit, and are slightly smaller than Greater Flamingoes.
We watched them for a while, as they strode slowly and effortlessly up the centre of the river, their beaks submerged in the river, as a couple of sea gulls flew and dove around them.
Quite an extraordinary sight, don’t you think?