Shades of pink: a guest blog from Claudio Contreras Koob
02 February 2018 posted by: Zoe - WPY Comms Officer
For the last 25 years, professional photographer and editor Claudio Contreas Koob has dedicated his career to documenting the incredible diversity of wildlife in his home country of Mexico. His photography and expertise has given him opportunities to work with conservationists and scientists to raise awareness for the country's most fragile flora and fauna.
Ría Lagartos in Yucatán, Mexico, is a peaceful habitat for a vast range of birds, including an impressively dense concentration of flamingos. Photographing the colony is a challenging task, as the birds are highly sensitive to human presence. It was Claudio's mission to capture beautiful and informative shots without disturbing these iconic creatures.
Claudios's image of a fluffy flamingo chick being preened by one of its parents is shortlisted for the #WPYPeoplesChoice Award. As part of our guest blog series, we've invited him to describe the adventure behind his charming image, Grooming the descendant.
Grooming the descendant by Claudio Contreras Koob. Shortlisted for the 2017 People's Choice Award, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
It's the dead of the night when I begin my approach, and I can hear the calls of flamingos in the distance. The noise is subdued in comparison to their daytime chatter, but it's enough to let me know that there is something massive out there.
Fully equipped, I set out to cross the coastal lagoon. It's muddy and treacherous to cross, especially while carrying my sensitive equipment.
In the middle of the lagoon I pause to think about the name of the biosphere reserve I'm in. Ría Lagartos means 'The crocodiles' costal lagoon'. Needless to say, that makes me feel slightly vulnerable while trying to walk in the mud, with water-levels rising over my hips and nothing but darkness around me. But I remind myself of the reality: to my knowledge, there have been no incidents with this predator and humans in the region.
Establishing a colony in an island in the middle of the lagoon wouldn't be a deterrent for a crocodile in search of easy prey. But the most mature flamingos have chosen a small sandy island, to grant themselves protection from terrestrial predators such as racoons. The island colony is separated by 800 metres of water,enough to protect from would-be predators roaming the mainland.
Finally, after a careful cross, I reach solid ground again. It is still dark but the flamingo sounds now clearly tell me where the colony is. I start approaching them slowly and duck down until I can finally sense that I'm closing in. A small dune gives me protection as I prepare for the last part. I lay down flat to the bottom and start crawling towards the colony.
It has been three years since I started approaching the reproductive colony of flamingos. I began by studying them from further afield, checking their behaviour and their reactions to the presence of humans. I first thought of coming close to them with a floating blind, but navigating with that in the middle of the night was a discouraging idea. Fortunately the flamingos had chosen the same spot for three years, so I could plan on using a path that would present the least risk to them.
Approaching a nesting colony is something I love, but it's also something I find a bit stressful. The mere thought of birds taking flight, leaving their chicks or eggs unattended due to my presence sends shivers down my spine. The risk is heightened with flamingos due to their body construction. Their thin, long legs are excellent for wading in the muddy waters I had just attempted to move through myself, but they're actually quite fragile and could break if they trampled themselves or hit a nest during a panicked escape.
In the case of Mexico's breeding colony, with approximately 20,000 usable nests, avoiding disaster was always in my mind. The panicking of one single bird can send thousands of birds in flight, with multiple injuries and the possibility of abandoning the colony altogether.
I waited for the first signs of dawn on the horizon to go further on, to be able to see any reaction that the birds might have. A long time later I had made it to my destination, five metres in front of me, fully calm. I could see the closest nests, the sounds of the birds now enveloping me. It was time to wait for sunrise and enjoy observing the flamingos going about their daily activities.
Scanning with my telephoto lens I could see the new arrivals: chicks only hours old that were still too weak to hold their heads by themselves. Eggs with partially cracked surfaces checked by an anxious parent, the result of a long month waiting under the scorching sun in which both parents took turns to hatch the egg.
At the edge of the loud colony, I was able to recognise the individual calls of three-to-five-day-old chicks begging for food, and what kind of food it was. Flamingo milk, a blood-red secretion produced by the adults, is transferred from beak to beak. Seeing the chicks go from strength to strength as they drink the milk is incredible. One week on, chicks have already left the nest and can be seen wandering around the colony in crèches.
One has to imagine that when these chicks are born, completely covered by their protective parents and their bright plumage, their whole world is shades of orange and pink. Even when they peek from underneath the wings of their parents, they are surrounded by thousands of these beautiful, colourful birds.
I have always felt very close to the Yucatán and its flamingos. When I was a young kid we frequently visited the beaches and I would go to the coastal lagoon behind the beach on my own, spending long hours in search of flamingos and other beautiful animals. As hard as I tried to get close to them though I would only see them at some distance.
One of the most beautiful experiences I can remember was when we went out to sea in a boat and suddenly a massive group of flamingos passed us by. We screamed in joy as we witnessed them flying towards the horizon in a continuous line. Little did we now back then that they were on their annual migration towards their nesting site in the east.
My first opportunity to see the flamingos up close came in 2009 when the ninth World Wilderness Congress, organised by the Wild Foundation, gathered in Merida, Yucatán's State capital. The ILCP (International League of Conservation Photographers) produced a video about Yucatán's biodiversity. As a Fellow I was given an assignment to document the yearly banding of flamingos with a local organisation named Niños y Crias. It was instant love.
Banding and other practices used to monitor flamingo movements are important because as conspicuous as these birds are, we don't yet fully understand their regional and temporary movements. We therefore cannot provide a comprehensive conservation programme throughout their range. Mexico's banded flamingos have been spotted in other countries like Cuba and the Cayman Islands, but their species range extends far beyond that, going southward towards Venezuela.
Protecting flamingos throughout their range is important to the coastal communities that benefit from the revenue generated by birdwatching tourism. The coastal region of Yucatán is visited by people coming from all over Mexico, the USA, Canada and Europe to get a glimpse of the flagship species of the Yucatán.
Flamingo conservation is also important because these birds act as an umbrella species. Protecting them allows us to protect their habitat, which includes all the other less conspicuous life forms that live around them.
• Voting for the People's Choice Award is open. See the shortlist and vote for your favourite image before voting closes at 12.00pm GMT on 5 February.
• The winning image will be revealed on 13 February, and will be showcased in the #WPY53 exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London until 28 May.
ABOUT CLAUDIO CONTRERAS KOOB
Claudio studied biology at the Sciences Faculty in the National Autonomous University of Mexico. For the last 25 years he has been professionally dedicated to photography and bringing awareness to nature and conservation all over Mexico. His images have been published nationally and internationally, and he has received numerous awards for his images from prestigious competitions including Wildlife Photographer of the Year. He is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
To find out more about Claudio visit his website.