The year 2012 ended on a rather bizarre note in the Maasai Mara when a rare guest showed up unannounced in this vast Savannah wilderness. It was a Lesser flamingo! Need I remind you that it is not every day you spot a flamingo sauntering in the Mara?
The bird would basically be breaking all the rules of nature to be there in the first place! On this particular day, the flamingo was doing its casual rounds in the unusually rich greenness of an otherwise dry and harsh grassland. It has been raining heavily in the Mara these last few days.
When we first spotted the bird, we were on our way to the Maasai Dental Clinic, an amazing free facility founded by Raymond and Gail Damazo in Sekenani. Although it looked a bit confused and worn-out, it otherwise looked very much at ‘home’ – probably wondering where the rest of its kind were.
But what was a flamingo doing so far away from home? How did it come to be here? These were the questions running through our minds as we forgot about our dental problems for a few fleeting minutes to ponder this over.
It is now known that although flamingos travel long distances in search of food, they do not migrate so much. They tend to be more nomadic than migratory. When they migrate, they do so mainly at night, preferring to fly with a cloudless sky and favourable tailwinds.
They can do approximately 600 KM in one night at speeds of about 50 to 60 KPH. When travelling during the day, the flamingos fly at high altitudes, possibly to avoid predation by eagles. Most flamingos that migrate return to their native colony to breed. Three quarters of them birds breed in Tanzania’s Lake Natron.
Of the 5 species of flamingos found in the world, 2 are found in Kenya. The Lesser flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor) which is distinguished by its deep red carmine bill and pink plumage and the Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), which has a bill with a black tip.
The Lesser Flamingo is the smallest and the most numerous of the 5 species. It is classified by IUCN as globally ‘near threatened’ due primarily to its dependence on a limited number of unprotected breeding sites and threats of proposed soda-ash mining and hydro-electric power schemes on the main breeding lakes.
It occurs primarily in the alkaline lakes of East Africa’s Rift Valley with about 4 to 5 million birds estimated (UNEP). There are small populations in Namibia/Botswana (40,000), Mauritania/Senegal (15,400) and Ethiopia (8,300).
Huge feeding flocks of 1 to 2 million birds frequently gather on lakes Bogoria and Nakuru, creating one of the most stunning wildlife spectacles in the world. They come here to feed on the algae forms from their droppings mixing in the warm alkaline waters and plankton. Scientists estimate that in Lake Nakuru alone the flamingo population consumes about 250,000 KG of algae per hectare of surface area per year.
Reduced salinity, due to an increase in water levels in Lake Nakuru earlier in the year, caused the exodus of millions of flamingos to other lakes including Lake Bogoria, Turkana, Oloiden, Simbi Nyaima and Natron as the low salinity reduced the growth of the vital algae they come to feed on.
As we left the dental clinic, the flamingo was still wandering around, now looking distressed. Probably it had not eaten in hours and there was no algae in sight. We could not help worrying about its inevitable demise in an environment rive with hyenas, cheetahs and other small predators.
If it lived through that night, we could not tell. We were very tempted to carry it with us to safety but we instead decided to let nature take its course. If anyone out there has a possible theory as to how this flamingo ended up in the Mara, they are welcome to share below.