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Flamingo on Shalkarteniz salt marsh.

Observations of flamingos in Kazakhstan.

“We climbed higher, made a wide turn around the flock and were rewarded with an impressive sight! Not everyone has seen this: illuminated by the bright sun against the background of water, a flock of flamingos waving pink-red wings with black tips seemed like a field of blooming red poppies swaying in the wind...”

V. Garbuzov.

Flamingo colonies in Kazakhstan.

Flamingo is an exotic bird, the idea of which many people associate with distant southern countries. Undoubtedly, the bulk of these birds live in tropical and subtropical zones. But flamingos are also found in more temperate latitudes. Its northernmost settlements are located in Kazakhstan.
Of the three species of flamingos that exist in the world, the pink or common flamingo lives in this country - a very large, long-legged, long-necked bird up to 1.5 meters tall and weighing up to 4.5 kilograms. She has a massive beak, steeply bent downwards. The plumage color is pink and white.
The wings are bright red with black tips. This is one of the most beautiful birds on Earth. Currently, flamingos in Kazakhstan are preserved on lakes Tengiz and Shalkarteniz, located in the Akmola and Aktobe regions, respectively. But if the flamingo settlement on Lake Tengiz within the Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve is constantly in the focus of attention of ornithologists, then the nesting colony on Lake Shalkarteniz is still almost inaccessible for study due to its remoteness and impassability.
For the first time, ornithologist P.P. Sushkin, a member of the Moscow Society of Naturalists, visited Shalkarteniz in June 1898. The scientist was amazed at the picture that opened before him. Along the coast and in the vast area around, many large pink birds, unusual for the Russian fauna, were feeding.
In the distance, on a low island shallow, the conical nests characteristic of these birds were visible. The scientist tried to inspect the colony, but the treacherous marshy mud hidden under the salty shallow water did not allow him to reach the shallows.
The next attempts to reach the nesting site were made only in the late 50s of this century by Kazakh scientists I. A. Dolgushin and V. F. Gavrin, but for the same reason they were unable to reach the bird colony. The same failures later befell other, less eminent naturalists.
All of them stopped on the shores of the lake while passing from afar and, naturally, did not have time to overcome the swamp, and besides, they did not have the necessary equipment.
- “Which zoologist, if not you, would be most comfortable studying flamingos on Shalkarteniz?” Professor I. A. Dolgushin once told me, returning after an unsuccessful trip to the lake.
- “It’s too far and difficult to get there from Moscow and Almaty, but do you work in the Aral Sea region all the time?”
I myself have long wanted to get to know flamingos better. But my main responsibilities did not allow me to get to the lake. In the end, I was lucky: at the beginning of May 1966, our anti-epidemic detachment was sent to the lower reaches of the Turgai River and settled in the village of Zhaisanbai, from which the lake is a little more than 30 kilometers away.
In addition, I had a truck and even a plane at my disposal for aerial reconnaissance of unfamiliar territories. That's where we started. Having taken off for another reconnaissance, we set a course through Chelkar-Tengiz. And as soon as they reached the lake, they immediately saw flamingos.
Birds alone and in small groups, standing in the water, serenely fed near the shore. And behind them, in the distance, a lonely island could be seen. It did not look like those green, bristly clumps of reeds or cattails that are usually found in shallow water, but from a distance it resembled pink foam accumulated on the surface of the water.
It took me a while to realize that this was a huge gathering of flamingo birds. From the roar of the plane, the birds began to rise into the air in panic and, huddled in a huge flock, smoothly circled over the shallows, on which their nests were visible.
Here Turgai created two long muddy shallows in the lake, which became a convenient haven for birds. As soon as we appeared, black-headed gulls, black-headed gulls, black-headed gulls, terns, waders, magpies, avocets and various ducks circled and screamed above us: gray ducks, mallards, pintails, shovelers, teals and shelducks.
Birds appear on Shalkarteniz at the end of April. They know the places where they were born and raised well, so they return to the lake shallows as if they were home. They usually fly at night, which is why their appearance is always unexpected.
Adult flamingos arrive first. The young appear much later - in mid-May. They can be easily distinguished by their light gray color that has not yet changed to the usual light gray color. Having returned to their native land, the birds, as if to celebrate, organize wedding parties.
Having chosen a female, the male relentlessly follows on her heels, trying to imitate her movements. He rubs his shoulder against her, throws his head on her neck, comes in from the side to somehow attract attention to himself. If the female does not accept his advances and runs away, then the stronger male chases after her.
Having caught up, he grabs her head with his beak and tries to bend her down. If he succeeds, then mating occurs. If courtship with the chosen female fails for some reason, the male immediately switches to another. During the mating period, males often fight, but their fight is more like a game.
Having grabbed each other with their beaks, the birds stomp around in one place, trying to bend the enemy’s head to the ground. Having fluffed their feathers, they flap their wings and cackle loudly. This continues from a few seconds to half a minute, after which the birds disperse to the sides as if nothing had happened, no longer noticing each other.
Sometimes the female also takes part in the fight between the males. She stomps around and, without giving preference to either of them, ruffles the feathers of both, as if persuading:
- “Why this brawl? There are enough brides!”
She never takes into account the priority of one of her rivals, but is ready to accept the courtship of any of them. During this same period, birds begin to build nests from wet silt. They grab silt with their beaks and sculpt turrets in the form of a truncated cone, on top of which they build a nest - a primitive tray without any soft bedding.
The height of such a turret ranges from 10 to 60 centimeters. Sometimes, without bothering themselves with extra work, birds lay eggs directly on the ground. After each nest is built, holes remain due to the selected silt, which are usually filled with groundwater.
Birds use these mini-ponds for cooling. In extreme heat, flamingos grab water from them with their beaks and spray it on themselves and on the hot soil around them. In addition, they take it to repair nests that are destroyed by bad weather. In flamingos, they are short-lived, so the birds do not use last year’s ones, but build new ones every year.
The cones are arranged very densely: on average two or three per square meter. Therefore, the flamingo colony still catches the eye from afar, resembling a high hummock among a flat space. The female flamingo usually lays one or two eggs. They are two to three times larger than chickens, weigh from 100 to 200 grams, often vary significantly in size and shape, but are always white, sometimes with an olive tint.
The laying period, which begins in early May, extends for almost a month. Incubation continues for the same amount of time. Both parents take part in this in turn, but most of the time the female sits on the eggs. They, like other birds, tuck their legs under them. But they often rise from the nest in a very unusual way: to get up, the bird rests its beak on the ground.
The chicks hatch in June. They are covered with white down and have a short, straight beak that will curve after a couple of weeks. Around the same time, their color will turn gray. Parents tenderly care for their offspring: they stand for a long time at the nest with open wings, hiding the chicks in their shadow from the destructive rays of the sun.
Until the age of two months, the chicks cannot feed on their own; at this time they are fed by their parents, regurgitating food gruel from the stomach. When the chicks grow up and get stronger, their parents take them to shallow water, and here they begin to lead an independent life: they learn to feed, fly, and then join the adults in flights.
Flamingo is a cautious bird. She doesn’t let you get close to her; it’s difficult to watch her, but extremely fascinating. They spend most of their time searching for food. The birds slowly, as if solemnly, step their feet, moving in a circle, stopping from time to time to pick up another portion of food.
It would seem that long legs make it difficult to reach the bottom, but a long neck, capable of bending to the level of the bottom, helps. Standing on its feet, the flamingo bends its neck down and back, bringing its head closer to its feet. In this position, its lower jaw is at the top, above the humpbacked beak.
Furrowing along the bottom with its beak, as if with a plow, the bird stirs up the silt and, raising its head, filters it through the horny plates located inside the beak on both sides. Having had enough, the birds immediately fall asleep, often standing on one leg.
Curving their long neck into a spiral, placing their head on their back, hiding their beak under the wing, they remain motionless for a long time, but from time to time they raise their heads and look around. Because every bird does this, the flock will always notice danger in time.
The main food of flamingos on Lake Chelkar-Tengiz is the small branchial crustacean Artemia, which lives in salt water. Interestingly, the color of birds also depends on this crustacean. The fact is that the color of their feathers is due to the red pigment contained in these crustaceans.
That is why, when there is a lack of such food in food, flamingos in zoos are not nearly as bright red in color as in nature. In addition to small crustaceans, flamingos feed on worms, mollusks, insect larvae, as well as various algae and their seeds.
It is interesting to watch the birds bathe. Having chosen a suitable place, they sit down in the water. Having ruffled and spread their feathers, they grab water with their beaks, pour it onto themselves and, vigorously flapping their wings, “drown” in a fountain of brilliant sun spray.
At these moments, the always important, calm birds resemble a gang of children frolicking on the water. Birds do not notice that the water around them in shallow water becomes cloudy and dirty. And why should they do this, when the main point of bathing is to get rid of the ticks and lice eaters that bother them in time.
Flamingos have webbed feet and are good swimmers, but they are rarely seen in deep water. They spend almost all their time in shallow water, where the main supplies of their food are concentrated. Cautious birds also avoid deep water because, in case of danger, they cannot rise into the air as quickly and easily as they do in shallow water, where they push off the bottom with their feet during the takeoff run.
However, a weakened, wounded or very old bird, unable to take off, always tries to retire to the depths and swims so fast that it can be impossible to catch up with it in a rowing boat. The webbed paws of flamingos allow them not to fall into liquid muddy soil, but to move on the unsteady soil of the shallows as freely as on solid ground.
In the fall, with the onset of cold weather, flamingos begin to gather in separate flocks of 300 - 500, or even up to 2 - 3,000, which circle over the lake for a long time, as if training before the upcoming flight to the south. During this period, they can be seen on large freshwater lakes located near the Turgai River.
Flamingos fly to their wintering grounds at the end of October. They winter on the Iranian coast of the Caspian Sea, as well as in Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. Flamingo is a rare, endangered bird that is listed in the Red Book of Kazakhstan. Therefore, its nesting colony on Lake Shalkarteniz is of exceptional value as a natural nursery.
It has been preserved only because it is located in places that have not yet been developed economically, remote from roads and little visited by people.

"Flamingos on Lake Chelkar-Tengiz." Candidate of Biological Sciences V. Garbuzov. Voronezh. Magazine "Science and Life", No. 10, 2000

Photos by:
Alexander Petrov.