This article about the flamingos of Mexico was inspired by 12-year-old Annie, the granddaughter of a close friend.
At a party one evening, she was admiring some pictures of flamingos in a children's book, and her grandfather said, "Ron, why don't you tell Annie about the flamingos in Mexico?"
I was quite willing to tell about one of my most favorite places, the lagoons of Celestún, Yucatan, Mexico.
Straight south of here across the Gulf of Mexico about 600 miles lies the Yucatan Peninsula. The coast there is similar to our Gulf Coast, with shallow, brackish water enclosed by barrier islands, though much more tropical. Mangrove thickets are common. It's home to thousands of flamingos who feed on shrimp and other crustaceans by filtering them out of the water with their beaks.
The lagoons around the fishing village of Celestún are protected wildlife preserves, and there is a small industry established there of taking tourists on boat tours to see the birds. The village has a few interesting seafood restaurants on the beach.
We have been to Celestún three times. Many South Mississippians have been to Progreso, as several of the cruise ships from New Orleans dock there.
The cruise ships generally offer several shore excursions, some the archeological sites of Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, and to the old colonial city of Mérida.
All of these are worthwhile tours, especially the archeological sites. We knew the flamingo biological reserve was close to Progreso, where we docked, but none of the excursion agents seemed aware of its existence. After we left the ship, we had no problem finding guides with vans to take us to the flamingos. One can also engage tours at the end of the dock to any of the tour sites at a considerable savings over those booked by the cruise line.
Our van driver had us in Celestún in about 45 minutes. When we arrived, we were greeted by a group of children performing traditional dances.We hired a boat with a guide and motored toward the flamingos, which were some distance away. It was January, so there were many species of migratory birds in residence, such as White Pelicans.
Off in the distance, between the water and the mangrove thickets in shallow water, we could see a pink line across the horizon. As we moved closer, we could see the pink line consisted of thousands of flamingos.
As we came very close, our guide slowed to an idle, approaching them very slowly. He was obviously trained to prevent disturbing the birds. We saw thousands of flamingos, sometimes very close. They were constantly communicating with a low, honking sound. I recalled many years ago former Vice President Spiro Agnew referring to administration critics as "nattering nabobs of negativism." These birds were nattering.
The flamingos appear to be rather clumsy in the water, but are graceful in the air. We saw a number of juveniles, indicating the colony is reproducing. The juveniles' plumage is white. The pink color develops later, after they absorb pigments from the shrimp and other crustaceans they eat.
We wound up our boat ride with a short excursion into the mangroves near shore. We spotted the beautiful but elusive mangrove kingfisher, though were unable to catch it in a photograph.
Mangroves are remarkable in that they can grow with their roots submerged in seawater. They are very useful in controlling erosion in storms.
Unfortunately, they are very sensitive to freezing, and will not survive on our own Gulf Coast. They do grow on the Florida coast, south of Tampa Bay.
This was a bird-watching trip for those of us who are a little less than completely dedicated to bird watching. It is not necessary to rise before dawn and stumble through a swamp to see some interesting birds. If you go to Celestún in winter, you will see the birds.
We returned to our ship to hear about the tours of others in our group. They mostly went to the archaeological site at Uxmal.
It is unfortunate so few people are aware of the flamingos. Annie, her older sister Jeanne and her parents recently stopped in Progreso on a cruise. Given Annie's fascination with flamingos, they certainly would have gone to Celestún if they had known it existed.
Ron Schmidtling, is a Long Beach resident and a research geneticist with U.S. Forest Service in Saucier.