Flamingos are present at many lakes in Kenya and Tanzania, but their presence is dictated by the availability of water. Some of the lakes can be dry for extended periods and then of course remain devoid of any avian life. Probably the best place to see Lesser Flamingos in East Africa is at Kenya’s Lake Nakuru which is about three hours drive from Nairobi, but these birds are also present at Lake Bogoria, Lake Magadi and elsewhere. In Tanzania, Lake Natron, at times, supports a massive population of flamingos, but this huge lake is not very accessible and the birds are often feeding and breeding up to kilometres away from the edge of the lake, far away from any enthusiastic bird-watcher and wildlife photographer and his/her binoculars and camera. Lake Natron is incidentally the only place in East Africa where Lesser Flamingos breed and only one of three places in Africa where they breed!
Flamingo-watching is probably a lot easier in southern Africa, mainly because the pans and wetlands that the birds frequent are a lot smaller. Although there are fewer Lesser Flamingos in southern Africa – about 60 000, in contrast to the 2-3 million in East Africa – there are nonetheless often spectacular aggregations of birds. The largest numbers occur on Sua Pan (in Botswana) and Etosha Pan (in Namibia), the species other two African breeding localities. These two large pans are also fairly inaccessible and, as with Lake Natron, it is not always easy to get close to the masses of flamingos. There are a few places however where one can get relatively close to flamingos. The Walvis Bay lagoons often support a large number of flamingos (of both Greater and Lesser Flamingos) and these birds are also present at Langebaan Lagoon, De Hoop Nature Reserve, Lake St Lucia, and many pans in the Free State and Northern Cape.
It is my personal (and I suppose biased) opinion that the number one place in southern Africa to get close to massive displays of flamingos is Kamfers Dam, the large, permanently inundated pan located just north of Kimberley. Kamfers Dam regularly supports about 25 000 Lesser Flamingos (and at times probably up to 40 000 individuals), the largest permanent population in southern Africa. Kamfers Dam is probably the most important feeding site for this species in the region, with the nutrient-rich waters providing an abundance of blue-green algae, the Lesser Flamingos’ favourite food.
Although not formally protected (and in fact in private ownership), Kamfers Dam is a Natural Heritage Site, an Important Bird Area and a submission was even made to declare the wetland as an international Ramsar site. The unofficial status of this now famous wetland was recently even further enhanced when, in September 2006, the world’s third artificial flamingo island was constructed by Ekapa Mining. The island, which measures 25 x 250 m, is located on the secluded northern area of the wetland. Within a few weeks of construction the island was accepted by the dam’s flamingos and, at times, more than 20 000 birds can be seen roosting on this artificial structure. Although almost 200 nests were constructed and a few eggs were laid, the breeding attempt was not successful. Maybe next summer….
I am fortunate to live and work in Kimberley, which allows me to regularly visit the many game farms that surround the city and of course I also undertake regular visits to Kamfers Dam. Through my work, as the Department of Tourism, Environment & Conservation’s ornithologist, I have been counting the waterbirds at Kamfers Dam twice a year since 1991. Since 1995 we have been counting Kamfers Dam’s flamingos on a monthly basis. During the past 16 years I have watched the bird species composition change (as the water has become more saline and thus more favourable to some species (such as Cape Teal and Avocet) and less favourable to others (such as Red-billed Teal and Yellow-billed Duck)) and I have seen the comings and goings of several vagrant birds, such as Red Phalarope and Lesser Black-backed Gull.
My bird photography is still in its infancy as I only recently bought my digital photography setup. I use a Canon 20D, but will (hopefully) very soon be upgrading to the Canon 1D MK3. I have a variety of lenses, but the best investment I ever made was my recent purchase of the Canon 500 mm F4 IS lens. My bird photograph pre and post this magnificent lens is like night and day. I have been severely bitten by the photography bug and every weekend sees me visiting one of the local game farms, or travelling to prime photographic destinations. I have recently started taking photographs of Kamfers Dam’s flamingos, with most of my photography being done from small, portable bird hides.
Hide photography allows me to get really close to the birds and I am always amazed by how they continue with their activities, unperturbed by the hide and the sound of my camera. Sitting in the hide I am able to frequently check my camera settings, view the images, check the histograms, and make necessary adjustments. In the hide I sit on an upturned milk crate (the hide, tent pegs, etc., get stored in the crate when the hide is transported), with a small cushion for comfort. I usually have a flask of tea, snacks and a book within easy reach. I use a Manfrotto tripod with a Kirk Ball Head and Wimberly side kick and this system seems adequate to get good flight photos. The nice thing about sitting low down in the hide is that I am at the level of the birds.
Flamingo photography is not easy. How does one get all of the birds in frame to do something interesting at the moment one takes the photo? Some will have their heads in the water, some will be facing the wrong way and the odd bird will have a perfect posture. Depth of field is also a problem, and it is easy to overexpose these pinkish-white birds. Despite the challenges, there are few images that beat a magnificent flamingo in flight or several thousand flamingos conducting their synchronized prenuptial displays.
We are planning to construct a viewing platform at Kamfers Dam, which will improve the facilities for people to view and photograph the dam’s flamingos. Ultimately we’d like to construct walkways and hides to allow one to get close to the masses of flamingos. Currently, however, the viewing point, just through the subway (off the N12) often allows one to get fairly close to flamingos and a variety of other waterbirds.