Flamingoland

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Entering the remote anchorage south of Booby Cay, Mayaguana, we notice a string of red spots in the distance near the beach. I think these are red floats. As we approach the beach we realize it is not a string of floats but of flamingos!

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The West Indian Flamingo is hardly one to get confused with other birds. Its long legs, long neck and characteristic pink colour make these birds like no other. The West Indian Flamingo has a large, heavy, down curved bill that is most often described by the layperson as „strange“. Adults can reach up to five feet in height.

Even though the Flamingo is a strong flier, it is really quite shy and prefers to live in remote and lonely places. Usually these are rather desert-like spots, dry islands and shorelines where salt is made, and where few other creatures can survive.

The West Indian Flamingo which once roamed the entire neo-tropical region (tropical Americas) was hunted to a near extinction. Today the West Indian Flamingo is mostly found on the island of Great Inagua in the Bahamas but has also recolonized islands in the Bahamas such as Mayaguana, Crooked and Acklin islands, Exumas, Long Island and Andros.

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A flock of about a hundred West Indian flamingos, disturbed by us, slowly lift off, make a wide low circle above Fata Morgana and settle back in their favorite spot near the beach. One thing the cruising guide has succeeded by scaring people away from this anchorage is make sure no one disturbs the flamingos, except crazy people like us.

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Flamingos are filter feeders and feed on the microscopic plants and animals found in ponds and mud. The larvae of the salt marsh fly is one of the major constituents of the diet of West Indian Flamingos. They also eat brine shrimp, small snails as well as other forms of animal and vegetable life so small that they can scarcely be seen without the aid of a microscope! Although small in size, this food is rich in a protein called beta-carotene which gives Flamingos their characteristic colour. Flamingos stir up their food from shallow water and separate it from the mud and water by pumping and straining it through their bill. They are the only birds which feed with their bill upside down!

 

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 What a wonderful unexpected welcoming! We can’t believe it! Real long-legged weird-beaked yellow-eyed pink-feathered paranoid wild flamingos.

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Flamingo breeding activity usually begins in early March when huge flocks gather and engage in elaborate and loud courtship displays. This is almost like a very large dance – the massed birds parade together shoulder to shoulder, preforming head flagging (waving the head from side to side), wing salutes (opening the wings to expose the black flight feathers) and the twist preen (twisting the neck over the back and pretending to preen itself whilst stretching out on of its wings. The chorus of courting birds can be heard miles away. This synchronized courtship dance stimulates the birds to breed at the same time, ensuring that the chicks are hatched around the same time.

When the courtship displays are all over the pairs are formed and the building of the nest mounds begins usually around April. Nests are built on the ground out of mud and are baked hard by the sun. The nest which resembles small volcanoes, can be from a few inches high to sometimes over two feet high a shallow crater at the top. This is where the single egg is deposited. Flamingos lay one white egg that is about twice the size of a hen’s egg. Both parents share in incubation which takes exactly 28 days to hatch.

Flamingo chicks look nothing like their parents. They are covered with a thick coat of white down and have pink bills and feet. Both parents feed the chick a secretion from the crop gland in the neck known as „flamingo milk“ or „crop milk“. This „milk“ is a concentration of fats and proteins (similar to mammals milk) and has a very high amount of beta-carotene making it a bright red colour. When they are about 30 days old the chicks have changed to a dark gray down and start to feed themselves but still eat from their parents if they can. By three months the chicks are fully grown and become a bright pink colour signalling that they are sexually mature to the rest of the colony.

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In the next few days I spent my afternoons chasing the flamingos around the anchorage with my photo camera. As I get too close, they lift off, make a wide lazy circle, and land a bit further from me. But after time, they get used to me and instead of flying away, just march away.

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In the 1950’s it was thought that was hunted down to a small population of about 5,000 only on the island of Inagua, Bahamas. With the help of the National Audubon Society in the United States, the creation of the Bahamas National Trust and the appointment of park wardens, the Inagua population grew to approximately 60,000 – a true conservation success story. Although Flamingo meat is eaten in other Caribbean countries, it is illegal to harm or capture this bird in the Bahamas under the Bahamas Wild Bird (Protection) Act.

The Flamingo was hunted for its big, pink feathers that were used to decorate hats and other nonessential items. Low flying planes of World War II over Andros wreaked havoc on the Flamingo population. This noisy disturbance drove these shy birds away- so much so that their return was doubtful.

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The marching flamingos bring me to a strange place… A metal boat, ketch with red hull, is lying on its port side washed near the eastern shore of Mayaguana Island.

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INTERESTING FACTS

  • The Flamingo is the national bird of The Bahamas.

  • The West Indian Flamingo is also refered to as the American, Caribbean or Rosey Flamingo.

  • There are a total of 6 species of flamingos in the world. The other species are Andean Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus andinus), Chilean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus), Lesser Flamingo (Phoeniconaias minor), Puna (James’s) Flamingo (Phoenicoparrus jamesi)

  • The Greater Flamingo is closest related to the West Indian Flamingo. Despite the Greater Flamingo being a larger size and considerably less brightly coloured, some authorities consider them the same species but different sub-species.

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 All information on West Indian Flamingos are from the Bahamas National Trust website.

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Bitter Guana Cay

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The 700 Bahamian islands and cays are all low-lying flat tablelands of sand, coral, and limestone on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, averaging not more than 30 meters/100 feet in elevation. Most of the smaller cays are uninhabited, covered with low tropical vegetation, small spiky palm trees and cedars. 

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One such cay is Bitter Guana Cay in the Exumas where we stop for a few days for a total do-nothing relaxation period away from everything and everyone. The island looks like a chocolate-covered puff-cream pastry. The white sand is the vanilla cream filling and the limestone is the chocolate on top, which is now all cracked-up and melting away as a result of some glorious roaring Jurassic convulsion of the earth’s crust.

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On the west side, the side of the shallow Bahama Bank, the anchorage in front of the small beach is completely protected from east, north and south winds and big ocean waves.

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We spend a few days here alone, with no other boats around, swimming, fishing, climbing the crumbling sandy ridges, exploring the small cave, feeding the population of hungry but friendly iguanas with whatever leftover food, which is not much, sorry, iguana-buddies.

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Only once a dinghy stopped by our iguana-island and a young couple spent the afternoon on our beach, completely naked and happy, their white butts shining like vanilla ice cream under the mighty all-seeing ever-smiling tropical sun. We forgive them the trespassing, just because they were naked and therefore totally free and defiant, and because they too shared some food with our iguanas.

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On the other side of the island, the Bahama Sound, the sea is not so kind. It is scary and menacing, deep blue-purple color, east winds and huge waves pounding the rock. Here the ocean dropoff plunges to depths our depth founder will never record, some of the deepest ocean water in the hemisphere. We stay away from there. For now.

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Chub Cay And The Swimming Pool

Sailing to Chub Cay

After Great Harbour Cay we sail south to another of the Berry Islands popular among cruisers for its strategic geographic location between Florida and the Exumas: Chub Cay.

(On the way there we catch a good-size mahogany snapper, same as the ones we were catching near Cuba a few months ago but smaller, and we have an excellent supper of white tender fillets fried with garlic lemon and pepper, and white rice on the side.)

Ivo with a mahagony snapper

Ivo with the mahogany snapper

 

Chub Cay

Although Chub Cay has undergone major renovations in the not so distant past: new docks, expanded marina and entrance channel, refurbished restaurant, 57 newly-built vacation villas along the beach, and a 20,000 square foot three-level members-only clubhouse and pool, we find it almost completely deserted.

 

The swimming pool

The swimming pool

 

The Fun Pool

The construction of the clubhouse with its spectacular 360-degrees view of the island, its private bar, restaurant, and trophy room has been abandoned after the crash of the global economy a few years ago and the huge yellow building like an empty shell, without windows and doors, its dark interior full of construction materials instead of trophies and memorabilia, is standing uninhabited on its shore overlooking the perfectly protected anchorage. Strangely though, we find the magnificent fresh-water pool on the beach in front of the clubhouse functioning, full of crystal cool water, surrounded by palm trees and beach chairs, inviting us to jump in. And we do not refuse.

 

Maya and Vick

Maya and Vick

 

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Viktor

 

 

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Maya

Maya

 

Every day for three days we return to the pool to chill and have fun, and there is no one even to ask if we are aloud or not. There are no people, no locals (no settlement on this island), no tourists, no cruisers, but us and another Canadian boat with three young guys aboard waiting, like us, for a weather window to cross the Northeast Providence Channel to Nassau.

 

Maya and Mira

Maya and Mira

 

Thus, we spend Ivo’s birthday and Christmas in complete isolation from civilization, the weather perfect, sunny and peaceful, swimming and snorkeling, eating coconuts we find fallen on the beach and lobsters we find under rocks in the shallow waters not far from the boat.

 

Ivo and Maya with coconuts

Ivo and Maya with coconuts

 

Maya with coconut

Maya with coconut

 

Lobster on the table

Lobster on the table

 

We feel somehow privileged to be here, like VIPs, or like millionaires who own a private island with a handsome pool maintained by some mysterious invisible people. Aah, it’s a nice feeling…

 

Mira at the pool

Mira at the pool

 

 

 

 

 

 

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