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Monday, October 26, 2009

Salar de Uyuni Part 2: Pretty In Pink

As highlighted in the preceding post, this series of entries on our jeep tour of the Bolivian salt plains, which includes visiting other unique landforms and wildlife located in the high altitude deserts of the Andes, does not run in chronological order. Instead, we focus on the main highlights of the tour in 3 categories: volcanic features, lagoons and flamingos, and salt plains.

The second part of the series is all about colour! Mainly the colour pink. What's pink got to do with the desert? Well, read on!

Other than realising now that the flaminGO and our GO travel blog share some common traits, I had never paid much attention to these skinny pink birds before this tour. My main flamingo-related memory is that of creating a crayon and water colour art piece of these birds at the zoo, which subsequently won me a box of modeling clay at an art competition. I have a photo of me posing with my artwork at the Parkway Parade atrium with a cone of pink cotton candy from Funworld (the indoor amusement park) in hand. I think I was smiling without my 2 front teeth then.

My only other memory of flamingos is how much they stank when I saw them at the Jurong Bird Park. I didn't take a photo with the smelly birds, but if I did, I would have been posing with a full set of teeth. And not smiling.

But the thought that flamingos could be seen in the wild, outside the confines of parks and zoos, never once did cross my mind. Yeah, I knew that there were wild flamingos somewhere out there. But where exactly?

What is so unique about the high Andean lagoons is that these water bodies house 3 different species of flamingos living side by side. There are 6 species of flamingos in the world. The other 3 species live in the Caribbean, parts of Africa and even in India (yups, I never knew that there were flamingos in India!)

On the tour of the Bolivian desert, one can expect to see the Andean Flamingo, the Chilean Flamingo and the James' Flamingo. While all 3 have varying degrees of pinkness, it can be difficult to differentiate between shades of salmon pink, rose pink, baby pink, bubblegum pink and cotton candy pink. Dan always claims that guys are born with the ability to identify only 16 colours, and pink is not one of them. With some training, he can now recognise fuchsia and salmon, but playing a game of Spot The Pink Difference would have been quite taxing on the poor male brain.

So we took note of their different coloured legs instead (see poster below) and set about identifying the flamingos we saw in each lagoon.

Got it? Ok, let's go spot some flamingos!

Now, flamingos out in the wild don't just live in any lagoons. Pretty birds deserve only pretty homes, namely, los lagunas coloradas, or coloured lagoons. These lagoons get their colour from the presence of minerals in the water.

The first coloured lagoon we visited was a large shallow sulphurous pool, stretched across acres of land. In the vast milky white sheet of water was a perfect reflection of the mountain range hovering above the lagoon. My knowledge of chemistry is not fantastic, so if anyone can tell me why sulphur (which I always associate with the yellow powder to keep snakes away from one's tent when camping) turns the water white, please leave a comment on our blog!

Mirror mirror on the wall, this white lagoon is the fairest of them all

And in these fair waters, we caught our first glimpse of South America's wild flamingos.

Seeing double

Lying right next to Laguna Blanca (white lagoon) was Laguna Verde (green lagoon). The white waters of Laguna Blanca flow into Laguna Verde, essentially feeding a sulphuric solution into the copper-rich latter. So, chemistry students, what do you get as a result? Copper sulphate!

Yaaaaay! I passed my chemistry test with flying colours!

We were quite taken by Laguna Verde's pretty waters, encased in shores of salt. We could just imagine that we were at the beach!

Pretending that the mountains weren't there, and that the rocks weren't there, and that we were in our swimwear... hey presto, we were in the Maldives!

While the flamingos hang around in the lagoons pretty much the whole day, the best time to spot them in large colonies is in the morning and evening, when they come out in search of food.

A colony of flamingos enjoying sunset over dinner in the iron-rich Laguna Roja (red lagoon)

So while the coloured lagoons get their hues from the presence of coloured minerals in the water, where do flamingos get their pink dye from?

Well, far from what most of us would assume, flamingos are not born pink. Chicks emerge from eggs with white-grey feathers. A flamingo's pink plumage is a result of its diet, which consists of shrimp and aqueous bacteria, both which are rich in beta-carotene. You know how eating too many carrots makes your skin turn orange? Exactamente.

Little Pink Dots far out in the lagoon. They don't seem very interested in making new friends from the Little Red Dot.

This is what happens when you're a picky eater and only want to eat pink foods

Flamingos use their bills to sieve through the mud and water for food. They extend their long necks downwards and hold their bills upside down in the water, like a soup spoon. Moving their heads side to side, they pass the water through tiny finger-like projections inside their beaks, which filter the food particles from the mixture.

The bills of newly-hatched chicks are not developed enough to allow these babies to feed in the same fashion as the adults. They drink a dark red "milk" produced by, get ready for this, both parents. So there's no reason for daddy not to get up for those night feeds! The chicks live on this milky diet rich in fat and protein for 2 months until they are ready to forage for food. Within 3 years of independence, they earn their pink hues.

Chilean Flamingo - you can tell from it's yellow legs and red knees

Silently watching hundreds of flamingos dotting the coloured lakes, going about their daily activities in their natural environment, undisturbed by humans, is a very humbling experience.

They piqued our curiosity - with their unique appearance and behaviour.

They earned our respect - for their ability to survive in the harsh desert.

They generated feelings of awe within us - as they circled above our heads, flying high into the mountains (yes, they fly... and very high too!)

We were blessed to be in such close proximity to these beautiful leggy creatures, and to be able to share the privilege with fellow human beings who wisely choose to quieten their hearts and minds, and simply bask in the wonder of nature.

As Alex, our friend from France, said while we gaped at the soaring pink 'V' formation against the deep blue sky: "Let's just stop trying to take photos, and just capture the memory in our selves instead of in our cameras."

Flamingo footprints on the salt plain. Like memories imprinted in my mind.


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