Biologist Photographer Gets Up Close to Pink Flamingos

The iconic birds are very difficult to approach because they scare easily.

flamingos in water

Claudio Contreras Koob  /

Standing on spindly legs, flamingos are popular, distinctive birds that are difficult to get close to.

As a child in Mexico, Claudio Contreras Koob would spend hours in the swamps and mangrove forests of the Yucatan Peninsula where he was intrigued by local plants and animals. It was there he first saw the unforgettable display of a flamingo colony during mating season.

Contreras Koob has nurtured that love for nature and has always been intrigued by the pink wading birds. Now a photographer and biologist, he has combined those passions in “Flamingo” (teNeues Publishers). The book features more than 120 images of life in a flamingo colony including close-ups of plumage and chicks, as well as soaring aerial photography.

Contreras Koob spoke to Treehugger about his enchantment with the pink birds, the methods he uses to get up close to photograph them, and how the flamingo is an ambassador for wetlands

Treehugger: Where did your fascination with nature and photography start?

Claudio Contreras Koob: It started very early while visiting the Yucatan coast. Back then, there was almost no construction in the place we went for vacation, so the coast was full of life, and it was a pleasure to explore. From the time I was 4 years old, I knew I wanted to study biology, but I only discovered photography till I reached university. One of the courses I studied during my biology studies was photography and microphotography. It opened a whole new world for me. Suddenly I could register the beauty around me and also express my own feelings, I had found the perfect language for me.

flamingo flock

Claudio Contreras Koob /

How does your biology background help when you are working with wildlife?

It really helps, especially because if I had continued as a biologist, I would have studied behavioral ecology, so I’m always on the lookout to understand if an animal is comfortable with my presence or if it is nervous. It’s also helpful to understand what an animal is going to make or what interactions there might be between different individuals or different species.

Why do you find flamingos intriguing?

It strikes me that being such an iconic species, so beloved by humans, we really do not correctly understand parts of their ecology. Intriguing to me is the movements and dispersion of the different flocks. Caribbean flamingos are widely distributed; they cover an intermittent range that spans from the U.S. and the Bahamas in the north to the coasts of Colombia and Venezuela in the south (plus a small population in the Galapagos). What are the interactions between the different reproductive populations? We know that Yucatan’s flamingos, for example, can migrate to the U.S., the Bahamas, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands—but there is still much to learn.

Why can they be difficult to photograph and how do you manage that?

The key to flamingo photography is to be able to get close to them. They live in muddy, slimy wetlands alternating with some very salty pools, and you just cannot walk to them and expect to take your images. It is really easy to scare them and once one of them enters panic mode, all the others will follow suit. You really must take your time in order not to create havoc in a colony. 

For me, a very slow approach, covered in camouflage, worked very well. Flamingos tolerated my presence if I really put lots of time into approaching them. What also helped was to approach with the cover of darkness. While in a boat, I could get close to them by not speaking, not even whispering, and by not moving at all for a long time. This had the effect that flamingos forgot about the presence of our boat and encircled us as if we were just another tree in the middle of the lagoon.

flamingo chick in feathers

Claudio Contreras Koob /

What are some of the more interesting situations you’ve been in, when photographing flamingos?

Watching the reproductive colony during the moment when the chicks were hatching has been one of my greatest fortunes. The reproductive colony consists of about 15,000 nests in the Yucatan, all close together, forming an orange mass of birds, but once the chicks start hatching, you can see these curious white fluffy little birds peeking their heads from between the adults’ body and wing, everywhere! 

I was also very fortunate to witness the moment when an adult discovered that the egg was being broken by the chick within; chicks do this because for a brief period they have an egg tooth for hatching.

Finally, being so close to them all was very noisy, but looking through the viewfinder of my camera, I was able to see a chick as he called, and at the same time I was able to distinguish his call from all the noise around. Each flamingo has a different voice and adults later will use this to find and feed their chick amongst all the other chicks in a crèche.

What physical characteristics or behaviors do you find compelling about the birds?

I really love to watch the behavior of birds, especially courtship displays to select a mate. In the case of flamingos, you can see how excited they get when a flock of flamingos coordinate and start courting together.

What other species have you enjoyed documenting?

Seabirds fascinate me, be it gulls, terns, the albatross, pelicans, or frigate birds, but I must say my true love goes to boobies.

flamingos with chicks

Claudio Contreras Koob /

What challenges do you face when photographing wildlife and why do you find it rewarding?

Well, you never really know if you are going to take an image or a portfolio that will truly be worthy of showing the subject you are photographing at its best, as well as to be able to take an image or more that will express something. However, the biggest reward is being out there, is to be able to spend time in nature and be close to wildlife.

What do you hope people will take away from your flamingo images?

I hope to heighten the appreciation for these beautiful birds. We might think that flamingos with their slender bodies are fragile birds, but flamingos are really tough; they face a very salty environment where few other species of birds can survive. 

At the same time, flamingos are vulnerable because of the threatened environment where they live. Wetlands generally are not treated with the respect that is due to them, as we humans continue to encroach on them, and pollute them. There are also warning signs about coming dangers due to climate change. If we protect flamingos, we can protect the wetlands as well as all other species big or small living there. In a way, the flamingo is the ambassador for these wetlands.