Flamingos in the Yucatán
The wetlands along the Yucatán’s northern coast are shallow and murky and bordered in many places by thick mangrove forests. The water content is unusually high in salt and other minerals — the ancient Mayas gathered salt here, and several salt factories still operate.
A formidable habitat for most creatures, it’s ideal for phoenicopterus ruber ruber — the American flamingo, the largest and pinkest of the world’s five flamingo species.
Nearly 30,000 of the peculiar birds nest here, feeding on algae and other tiny organisms that thrive in the salty water. Flamingos are actually born white, but they turn pink from the carotene in the algae that they eat.
For years, flamingos nested only near Río Lagartos, near the peninsula’s northeastern tip. But in 1988, Hurricane Gilbert destroyed their nesting grounds — not to mention the town of Río Lagartos — and forced the birds to relocate. They are now found all along the north coast, including three major feeding and reproduction grounds: Río Lagartos, Celestún, and Uaymitún.
The best way to observe flamingos is on a sunrise boat tour. That’s when the birds are most active, turning their heads upside down and dragging their beaks along the bottom of the shallow water to suck in the mud that contains their food. (In the morning, you should see dozens of other birds too, such as storks, herons, kingfishers, and eagles.) If you go in the spring, you may see the male flamingos performing their strange mating dance, craning their necks, clucking loudly, and generally strutting their stuff.
All three sites have flamingos year-round, but you’ll see the highest numbers at Río Lagartos in the spring and summer and at Celestún in the winter. Uaymitún stays pretty uniform but has no boat tours — instead you observe the birds through binoculars from a raised platform.
No matter when you go, make as little noise as possible and ask your guide to keep his distance. Flamingos are nervous and easily spooked into flying away en masse. While no doubt an impressive sight, this may cause the birds to abandon the site altogether.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition