Friday, April 6, 2012

NW Yucatan Part 4: The Pink Flamingos of Celestún Lagoon

Celestún's famous pink flamingos come to attention as a tour boat passes. The lagoon where they congregate in their thousands is located on Northwest Yucatan's Gulf Coast. A visit to the Celestún Biosphere Reserve was high on the list Carole and I prepared before our visit to the Yucatan. The reserve is located 90 km (56 mi.) west of Mérida near the northwestern tip of the Peninsula. In this posting, I'll focus on the lagoon, the mangrove swamp that rings it, and particularly on the wildlife found there. In the next posting, we'll take a look at the little beach town of Celestún itself, and also at some of the interesting sights you will encounter on the way to the coast and back. For a map showing the location of Celestún, and other basic information about the area, click here.

The Lagoon

Setting off. Our friends Julika (left, front) and her husband Denis (right, front) have accompanied us on other adventures, including Etzatlán, Zacatecas, and Windy Point (see Index of Topics). Julika is originally from Germany, and Denis from Ireland, but both are now naturalized US citizens who retired in Mexico. We all signed up for the Celestún tour at a local agency in Mérida. The other people in the boat were also part of the van-load of us that left Mérida early that morning for the 1.5 hour drive. The January day was sunny and warm, but when the boat got moving across the lagoon we were bathed with cool breezes. Our craft was really quite comfortable and our boatman handled it expertly. Having learned my lesson from a similar voyage at the Turtle Reserve near Manzanillo, I grabbed a spot at the prow of the boat so I could be sure of unobstructed photography.

A Maya fisherman prepares to set a crab pot near a shoal occupied by several species of birds. The salt-water lagoon is narrow and long, but relatively shallow. It parallels the Gulf Coast, separated from it by a strip of land with the only opening to the ocean at the southern tip.  The Biosphere Reserve surrounding the lagoon straddles the line separating two of the Peninsula's states, Yucatan and Campeche. The Reserve was established in 1979, and its total size is 59,130 hectares (146,000 acres). It is the main feeding area for the American Flamingo and many other species of birds and wildlife and because of this important role, it was upgraded to Special Biosphere reserve in 1989. For a Google map of the Reserve and its lagoon, click here.

A White Pelican and several seagulls keep a sharp eye out for their next meal. Here at this shoal, far out from the lagoon's shore, the depth is only a few inches. I saw both White and Brown pelicans during our visit. I was a little surprised to find Whites because I had assumed they favor fresh water lakes. Although the pink flamingos are the most famous birds to be found here, there is a huge number of species in the area, some resident and some migratory. My advice to any "birders" who visit Yucatan: plan for a stop at Celestún.

A seagull drifts with the currents near our boat. At least I am assuming this is a seagull. He appears similar to photos I Googled except for his dark bill. I am open to any corrections by birders out there. He seemed oblivious to us, although we were only a short distance away. I guess he has seen so many tourist boats that we didn't impress him much.

The Pink Flamingos

Flocks of pink flamingos feed together in the shallows. During the winter, as many as 10,000 to 18,000 of these large, graceful birds inhabit the Celestún Lagoon. In our boat, we approached flocks of several hundred, while many thousands more were visible in the distance. They are very social creatures and like to gather in close proximity. Before the Biosphere was created in 1979, their numbers had dropped to as few as 2,000. Over the next 10 years, they increased their numbers to 26,000, but then Hurricane Gilbert devastated their feeding areas in 1988. Two more hurricanes hit the area in the mid-2000s but, because it has been protected, the flamingos have been able to rebound.

The flamingos' delicate pink coloring is a bit deceptive. Their natural color is actually white, but because they consume large amounts of crustaceans, insects, algae rich in beta carotene, their white feathers turn pink. If other foods are substituted, the feathers soon return to their natural hue. When the flamingos are held captive in zoos, the keepers have to add a chemical substance called Roxanthin Red to their food to maintain the color visitors expect.

Undisturbed, a flock often appears nearly headless. They dip their whole heads underwater to scoop up the tiny creatures upon which they feed. Their curved beaks, called "Roman Noses," are dipped into the water so that they are parallel with the bottom of the lagoon. Scooping up water and food together, they then expel the water through a comb-like structure leaving the food behind. The feeding process is similar to that of the baleen whale.

Disturbed by a tourist boat that drifted too close, a flock rises into the air. Flamingos takeoffs have been compared to those of lumbering WWII bombers. However, once in the air, they are quite graceful. There are six species of flamingos, including the American. The are all long-lived, and that is a good thing because it takes several years for a flamingo to reach a sexually reproductive age. In addition, flamingo couples don't always produce off-spring in a given season. According to the Honolulu Zoo, "taking into account bad weather, predation, food resources, natural disasters and deaths, it may take an average pair of flamingos 25 years or more to produce enough offspring to replace themselves!" It is important that the flock sizes be maintained as large as possible, because small flocks don't reproduce as well. This has something to do with the group courtship behavior they perform. Apparently if not enough flamingos are available for the dance, there are too many "wallflowers" and they get discouraged.

Stretching out their normally curved necks, flamingos glide past an offending boat. They didn't fly very far, just enough to maintain their comfort zone, and then they settled down again to feed. These birds can attain a beak to tail length of 145 cm  (57 inches) and a weight of  2.7 kg to 3.6 kg (6-8 lbs). They have a wingspan of 150 cm (59 inches). Their long legs are ideal for wading in the shallow lagoon waters.

The Mangrove Swamp

After drifting with the flamingos awhile, we moved off toward the mangroves. Two White Pelicans cruised by, just above the water. Pelicans are another large bird that appear rather comical when taking off, but are lovely to watch in the air. White and Brown Pelicans have completely different approaches to catching their food. The Whites float along in the water, sometimes in great curving convoys. They herd schools of fish close into shore and then scoop them up into the great baggy pouches under their beaks. Once a White Pelican has caught a fish, it will flap its wings, throw back its head so that its beak is vertical, and swallow the prey. The Browns, by contrast, will fly along just above the water until they spot a fish. Then they go into a complicated flight pattern to gain altitude before diving almost vertically into the water. They pop up a moment later, often successful.

A Great White Egret wades in the shallows next to the mangroves. Great Whites and Snowy Egrets live year round at Lake Chapala, near where Carole and live. I was glad to see a "familiar face," so to speak. The egrets feed on small fish and snakes along the water's edge. Unlike the flamingos, they are not particularly sociable while feeding and tend to keep a strict distance from each other. I suppose the difference is that the egrets' prey is easily frighted off, while the flamingos' is not. However, they do nest in trees in close proximity to one another. The long, graceful neck of the Great White gives it an excellent vantage point from which to spot prey. When an egret spots a potential meal, it seems to tense, then lean forward slowly, its neck curved, sometimes remaining motionless for a period. Suddenly the neck straightens and the beak lashes out like a striking snake. The thin, narrow beak of an egret cannot engulf a small fish like a pelican can. The egret must delicately flip the fish to move from a sideways position to one from which it will easily slide down the bird's throat. This is not easy to do and can take some time and several attempts, hopefully not resulting in the loss of the fish.

Termite mound. We cruised along the edge of the thick mangrove forest, looking for an entrance. Finally we came to a channel the guide knew and we moved into what seemed like a green tunnel. Shafts of light penetrated here and there, but most of the forest was in deep shade. As we floated quietly along, the motor almost idling, we passed overhanging trees draped with large termite nests looking like huge decorations on jungly Christmas trees. This one was about the size of a basketball, and we saw others even bigger.

An American Crocodile gave us a toothy smile as we drifted by. It was probably 4 feet long or so, certainly big enough to give you a start if you dangled your toes in the water. Crocodylus acutus is the most widespread of the four species of the Americas. Some of these cute little guys can attain a length of 6.1 meters (20 ft). Crocodiles depend on surprise attacks to obtain food. This one's coloring made it very difficult to see at first. With its eyes and ears on the top of its head, it can rest almost submerged, waiting for an unsuspecting creature of the mangrove forest...or a tourist. On land they can charge as fast as 16 km/h (10 mph) and in the water they can attain the speed of 32 km/h (20 mph).

Another aquatic creature. When we docked at the edge of the swamp, we walked back along a wooden ramp to a beautiful pool. It was fed by underground springs that caused the water to bubble, appearing almost to boil, although it was pleasantly cool to the touch. Julika couldn't resist. As I took this photo, I hoped that any Crocodulus Acutus in the area had already had lunch.

Although there were no crocs about, Julika was not alone in the water. If you look closely, you can see dark colored fish in the photo above. With a little closer scrutiny, you will observe the small striped fish resembling Angel Fish, although I am sure they are another species.

Another old friend takes off. While a seagull looks on, a Blue Heron flaps by. These birds, relatives of egrets, have a very wide range. There used to be one that liked to fish in the little stream behind my former home in Salem, Oregon. This bird can be found in North, Central and South America, and even occasionally in Europe.

This completes Part 4 of my Northwest Yucatan series. I hope you have enjoyed this look at a few of the many creatures of the Celestún Lagoon and its mangrove swamps. If you'd like to make a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Now I know why flamingos (some of them anyway) are pink! Thank you for explaining this mystery.

    I am envious of the January that was warm and sunny.... The cold and rain goes on and on here.

  2. HI, Just stumbled upon your blog this morning and really enjoyed the trip. I don't spend time reading blogs so this was a real treat to just relax and see some beautiful scenery accompanied by informative and interesting dialogue with a familiar feel to it. Truly I felt as though I were reading a letters from a friend. Thank you for the time and energy you put into this wonderful passion of yours, I enjoyed my visit. Kind regards, Zita

  3. Just curious on whether you drove to Merida from Ajijic. If you drove, how long a drive is it?

    Enjoyed your travelogue, and am interested in visiting this area possibly next April.

  4. Sheila,

    No, we did not drive to Mérida. We live in Ajijic in the Western Highland of Mexico and it would have been at least a 3 day drive. We flew because we wanted to spend our time exploring Yucatan and Mérida, not getting to it and back. Mexico is a big country, and even with the excellent new cuotas (toll roads) it now has, it can take quite a while to travel a distance like that. However, if you started your drive much nearer, it might be feasible.

    Saludos, Jim

  5. I love these postings Jim. Thanks for all the inspiration.



If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim