On the path of a meaningful life

Texts, photographs and videos by Claire B.

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7 December 2019

Courtship displays

Observation of a flamingo colony doing courtship displays in Camargue.
Greater flamingos in Camargue, France © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

Enthused by my close observations from the flamingos at the Pont de Gau ornithological park I decide to return there in early December to try to see the courtship displays. It is the beginning of winter and according to the information given on the official site of the Camargue Regional Natural Park, the parades begin now. They will spread all winter. So here I am back on a great sunny day. There is not much activity during the day, the birds mostly sleeping. I notice, a little away from the majority of the birds, groups of twenty individuals making curious rapid movements of the head. They follow a series of well-defined movements and I realize that these are groups doing the parades.

For each of the 3-4 ponds where the colony is located, there is a group doing the displays. It doesn’t look like the videos I saw on the internet of flamingo groups parading in Africa. From what I had seen, the birds were gathered in a tight group of about fifty individuals performing in a clear and orderly sequence ritual movements. Here in Camargue, I find the groups a little messy and less spectacular. Maybe it is because it’s only the start of the season? Or the displays in Africa and the one in Camargue are a little different? Perhaps it is necessary to wait until January-February for the majority of the colony to do the parades?

The birds seem to start the sequence with a general movement in a circle where each quickly turns their head from right to left, neck stretched towards the sky. It lasts a long time with a strong general gossip. This first sequence seems to end with a sudden and rapid march in one direction followed by a stop of the birds. Then begins the second sequence centered on the presentation of the plumage. One by one, the birds spread their wings vertically for a short time, before tilting forward and spreading their wings again, this time horizontally. The birds then spend a short time grooming before showing their plumage again. I find it difficult to distinguish the end of the ritual but it seems to me that it must be finished when the general gossip becomes weaker. Short moment of respite and the birds start again. I don’t know if the females do the ritual too. I learn later, that yes, the females participate like the males but perform bows during the second part leaving the presentation of the plumage to the males.

For the moment, I don’t have the impression of seeing couples form. It is still too early I think. By reading the descriptive signs around the park I learn that once the couples formed, they do not leave each other and start to build the nest, a turret of mud always on an islet, in order to be ready for the nesting happening in April. I also learn that birds gather during parades by their “dance level”: the best dancers will attract birds of similar level.

Continuing my observation I notice several birds peck, push each other with their chest and even show attitudes of domination over their peers.  I hadn’t seen that last time. Perhaps rivalries between males for the search for partners? Or dissatisfaction in the search for food? The clashes do not seem to be very violent, the birds mainly pecking each other. The beak cannot be opened widely and is not very sharp, this seems to limit the damage. The few birds with damaged wings that I observed last time come back to my memory and I wonder if this is due to clashes? Or have they damaged their wings in fences? Or during bad meetings with humans? Difficult to know. Adult flamingos have no predators and life is rather calm in the Camargue. A subject to dig …

Unlike last time, there is very little wind today and the surface of the water on the ponds is very calm. This creates superb reflections of the birds resembling watercolors and forming almost perfect mirrors. It is very beautiful. I realize how fascinating the aesthetic of the bird is. This is largely due to its long legs and long neck which allow the drawing of a surprising mirror image. Camargue, on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, has a somewhat special micro-climate: lots of wind, clouds and short thunderstorms. It is quite rare to have great days without an ounce of clouds in the sky. Generally the sunset is camouflaged by the low clouds. But not today. The light at the end of the day is magnificent, depositing golden reflections on the ponds and sublimating the landscape. The flamingos are even more beautiful wrapped in this warm light. This is the best opportunity to take photos and videos and I spend the end of the afternoon, with a big smile on my face, watching the birds.

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Greater flamingos in Camargue, France © Claire B. - Please do not use without authorization

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