Lake Nakuru Flamingos

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Experiencing Lake Nakuru flamingos is one of the highlights of any wildlife tour to the Rift Valley in Kenya. Greater and lesser flamingos in their natural environment is a safari must-see, an experience that you will never forget.

FLAMINGOS OF THE RIFT VALLEY, KENYA

Text &  Photos © Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications

Although Africa is known for the big five, it is also home to two of the six flamingo species. Seeing flamingos in the wild is a bucket list item for many bird lovers and photographers like myself. In addition, the prospect of seeing flamingos in Kenya was one of the features that appealed to me most in the Venture Photography Tour’s itinerary.

Lake Nakuru is one of the largest soda lakes in the Rift Valley, Kenya, and home to large flocks of greater and lesser flamingos. As the Lake comes into view on our arrival at the park, we can see lines of pink and white in the distance. The promise of flamingo photos is now an exciting reality for our group of keen photographers.

Greater Flamingos at Lake Nakuru

The plan is to wait for the late afternoon before heading to the Lake to look for flamingos. At this time, the warmer light enhances colours and allows shadows to fall away behind the subject if you approach from the right angle. Wildlife is also more active at dawn and dusk, increasing the chances of bird and animal behaviour shots.

Lake Nakuru National Park is home to a large variety of fauna, immediately apparent on the drive to the Lake. We see zebra, baboons, impala, and cape buffalo before arriving at the Lake’s shores, but sadly, relatively few birds are present. However, a small flock of greater flamingos was gathered in the shallow waters at some distance from us. Nonetheless, they are flamingos, so we took the opportunity to get some shots.

Lake Nakuru flamingos in the shallow water.

Greater flamingos in the shallow water at Lake Nakuru.

Lake Nakuru Flamingos: The Flock Experience

At dawn the next day, we are on the way back to the Lake. In contrast to the previous day, many birds are present along the shoreline. Thousands of red legs marching in unison is a sight that has always captured the imagination of artists and photographers, and this was our opportunity to see and photograph this spectacular sight.

Lake Nakuru is one of the few places in Africa where you can get out of the vehicle on a game drive if there is no present danger. The Lake’s edge is open with ample visibility, but Cape Buffalo and other animals come to the Lake to drink, so our guides keep watch while we wander around. A bonus sight is the presence of a large flock of pink-backed pelicans, and with the hills behind the Lake, it is a spectacular scene.

Juvenile lesser flamingos on Lake Nakuru with paler grey plumage grouped together in front of mature birds.

Large numbers of lesser flamingos on Lake Nakuru

Pink-backed pelicans at Lake Nakuru often seen alongside flamingos.

Pink-backed pelicans at Lake Nakuru

The birds are ready to feed in the early morning, leaving the water’s safety where they have spent the night together in a tight group. Moving slowly and staying low and quiet are the keys to approaching birds, but the flock takes to the air as we get closer. Flamingos appear to queue to do everything, and flying is no exception. Birds take flight one after another from the front of the flock, a spectacular and memorable sight, and within minutes, the sky fills with flamingos.

ANIMALINFO PUBLICATIONS
DIANA ANDERSEN
Diana Andersen is a professional photographer with a background in design. Her award-winning work is held by major Australian galleries and collections. After years spent as a practising designer and a lecturer in design, Diana turned her attention to her other passion, animals, and became a zookeeper working in conservation. A published author, Diana initially used photography to illustrate her books, but it has since become a passion. Diana founded Animalinfo Publications in 2007.

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Lake Nakuru flamingos. A group of greater flamingos with a couple of smaller lesser flamingos among them.

A group of greater flamingos with a couple of smaller lesser flamingos among them at Lake Nakuru.

Differences Between Greater and Lesser Flamingos

Greater Flamingos

Most of the birds this time were lesser flamingos, intermingled with smaller numbers of greater flamingos. Although there is no evidence of hybridizing between the two species, they seem happy to feed alongside each other in proximity. There are several noticeable physical differences between the two, with greater flamingos being the largest flamingo species, standing between 110cm and 150cm tall with pale pink plumage and deeper salmon pink on their wings. Their narrow hooked bills are pale pink with a distinct black tip. Their elegant arched necks are more typical of the traditional flamingo depicted by many artists and designers.

Lesser Flamingos

In contrast, lesser flamingos are the smallest flamingo species, standing a maximum of only 90cm tall. They are a deeper pink with less salmon pink on their wings. Their hooked bill is dark red and less narrow with a less distinct black tip. Both species have red legs and black flights, which become visible when birds fly. The pink colouring in flamingos results from their diet rich in alpha and beta carotenoids. These pigments deposit into skin and feather cells when digested, resulting in red colouration. Despite this, lesser flamingos on a nutritious diet will always be more a deeper pink than greater flamingos on the same food.

Lake Nakuru flamingos, a small flock of greater flamingos on the move.

Greater flamingos moving together through the shallows.

Flamingos in the Mist at Lake Nakuru

If we had left Nakuru without seeing another flamingo, I would not have been disappointed. However, on our last morning, we head to the Lake for one last look at the birds before leaving for the Masai Mara. As the Lake comes into view, a beautiful and unexpected sight greets us. A soft mist had settled on the surface of the Lake. Flamingo groups move as if floating above the surface of the Lake.

Shooting Low

I prefer to shoot from a low perspective when photographing birds on the ground or in the water because shooting low helps give context to the subject. Including the environment as a background adds to the story that the photo tells. It also helps to eliminate undesirable foreground and places the viewer on the same level as the birds. So, despite copious amounts of buffalo dung, mud, and encrusted salt, nothing would prevent me from getting down low to photograph.

Lesser flamingos in the shallow water at Lake Nakuru.

Lesser flamingos in the shallow water at Lake Nakuru.

As the mist gradually lifts, the birds begin to disperse, moving along the shoreline, demonstrating flamingos’ unique feeding behaviour. Hundreds of upside-down beaks sieve through the water, looking for food. Small groups of lesser flamingos take short flights leapfrogging the birds ahead, providing a fantastic opportunity to get some close-up flight shots. Being able to witness a sight like this was very special and will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Before long, the experience is at an end. We are on our way out of the park heading to the Masai Mara. I do not know whether mist forming on the Lake’s surface is a common occurrence, but I think we were lucky to see this beautiful sight. Either way, for visitors to the region, Lake Nakuru will not disappoint on I hope to visit the flamingos at Lake Nakuru, Kenya, again in the future.

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