The sight of a beautiful flock of Caribbean flamingos flapping their wings as they suddenly take flight, like flames rising into the sky, from the small swamp at the mouth of the Máximo River in Camagüey, the first of Cuba's eastern provinces, or so many other places across the island, leaves one wide-eyed and astounded.
Cuba is without a doubt a nation making significant efforts, despite the U.S. blockade, to protect the environment in all ways, and specifically the endangered pink flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber) which with its vibrant plumage appears like a stream of fire in the sky, and has been growing in numbers under the continual care provided by those responsible for the task, including the National Center for Protected Areas (CNAP), the Flora and Fauna entity, and nature lovers in general.
International visitors go beyond beach resort holidays, once they discover that the entire island is an unlimited treasure chest of bio-diversity and varied landscapes, such as the Máximo River, aguanes National Park, Ciénaga de Zapata, Cuba's northern and southern keys among other areas; home not only to pink flamingos but also a wide variety of fauna and flora.
The ruber ruber live near shallow waters, where - if one remains silent and still - they can be seen carrying out their daily activities, leisurely catching fish, making the most of their long legs to every once in a while, dip their black beaks into the water and pull out some small fish or mollusck.
They prefer to eat shrimp, whose carotenoid content gives the flamingos their intense and so greatly admired pink color.
Every year, between the months of May and August, the females lay just one egg. When the chick hatches, it starts out pink like its parents but gradually becomes paler until it has consumed enough shrimp to turn it a crimson color. For 28 to 30 days, both the male and female flamingos take turns incubating the egg, until it hatches. An interesting element of this process is that after the chicks are born, they are grouped together in large "nurseries" where they are minded collectively, and although they might all look the same to us, the mothers are always able to identify their young. Another unique feature of flamingos is their similarity to airplanes, which usually make a long run before taking off into the air, always in flocks. Both parents care for the offspring for about six years, until it is sexually mature. Pink flamingos have an average life expectancy of 40 or more years, one of the longest among birds, while they are also the largest of their species on the continent, although the Phoenicopterus roseus variety, found in Southern Europe, is bigger in size but less vibrant in color.
An interesting fact about this unique bird is that is usually sleeps or rests standing upright, resting on one leg with the other tucked under its wings, where it also nestles its head. In Cuba, there are currently colonies of pink flamingos in Cayo Coco and the costal swamps south of Santa Lucía beach in Camagüey.
It's a genuine delight to watch flocks of thousands of these spectacularly colorful animals; a true attraction for tourists who can also appreciate their well maintained habitat on the island.
The majority of data collected by ornithologists shows that pink flamingos journey periodically between Yucatán (where there are large colonies) and Cuba. They have been spotted in Central America (above all the Yucatán Peninsula) the Caribbean, and the northern part of South America (Netherlands Antilles, Venezuela, Colombia and The Bahamas), while information collected by electronic tags fitted to the birds have shown that they can easily return to their country of origin or reproduce in other locations; thus confirming the need for coordinated efforts at a Caribbean level to conserve this fascinating species.
Cuba, for its part, is home to an important habitat, the Máximo River Wildlife Sanctuary, where the largest groups of pink flamingos are found.
The data collection methods used have demonstrated that population trends are marked by smaller numbers during the non-reproductive period, that quadruple as soon as breeding season arrives.
THE MAXIMO RIVER
The Máximo River wetland is a marshy area located in the province of Camagüey, in Cuba's central-eastern region. The mouth of the river, which forms a sandy delta, is an important refuge for fauna and has been declared a Ramsar site (Wetland of International Importance) by The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO).
It is an extremely fragile marine-coastal ecosystem currently undergoing a process of salinization. The wetland is actually situated at the mouths of the Máximo – the largest – and Camagüey Rivers, and includes various keys among its shallow waters.
The area is the largest breeding ground for pink flamingos across the entire Caribbean, and is also a refuge for other migratory birds from North, Central and South America.
There are also colonies in the Lanier (Isle of Youth Special Municipality) and Birama wetlands, at the mouth of the River Cauto, in eastern Cuba.
The zone is predominated by mono-productive and mixed mangrove forests, areas of marshy evergreen vegetation, as well as Conocarpus erectrus trees among other species.
The zone is the perfect breeding ground for flamingos, featuring none of the three key threats to the species' survival on the planet – the salt industry, tourism, and airports, which appear at no point along the province's northern coast.
The Máximo River was once quite polluted, but clean-up efforts were undertaken to decontaminate its waters, including a 350 meter stretch known as Los Cangilones, now a pristine natural swimming pool. Meanwhile, an improvement in the condition of areas where the Phoenicopterus were known to settle, saw species numbers increase to such an extent that in 2007 there were a reported 55,000 couples, a number that had been reduced to a few thousand, given a prolonged drought which saw levels of fresh water - which the birds drink - decrease, according to Dafnet Sánchez from Camagüey's Flora and Fauna entity, speaking to Granma International.
The wetland is located close to the small community of Mola, whose residents make concerted efforts to protect the flamingos, a reflection of the concrete impact of environmental education initiatives carried out within the community by representatives from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment.