The classic flamingo silhouette is instantly recognizable: a ball of pink feathers perched on one thin leg, long neck curved as a beak tilts towards the water for food. It’s an image so well-known it’s been immortalized in kitschy plastic lawn ornaments.
But from the air, a flamingo has a different appeal. In the Lesser Flamingo habitats of Tanzania and Kenya, bright pink specks wade through dark water, leaving painterly trails in their wake. A cluster of birds flies over a monochromatic lunar landscape. A vast flock dots a sea of green.
“It was like nothing I’ve seen anywhere on our planet,” says photographer Paul McKenzie, who flew over these flamingo habitats to capture images of the birds from above.
In northern Tanzania, by the border with Kenya, Lake Natron’s shallow, highly alkalized water is a breeding ground for around three-quarters of the world’s population of Lesser Flamingos. As with neighboring Kenya’s Lake Bogonia and Lake Logipi, also home to the flamingo, the water in this soda lake is so corrosive it can burn through skin. But for the flamingo, it’s not only a place to breed, but feast. The waters, which measure over 35 miles long and 14 miles wide, are dense with spirulina, which the flamingo gathers with its head upside-down, sifting with its beak.
This unique environment also creates some peril for the birds, which are classified as “Near Threatened.” There have been proposals to mine for soda ash at Lake Natron, which would have a deleterious effect on flamingo populations.
For now, though, as these photos show, the birds thrive. Take a glimpse at what McKenzie calls a most charismatic species in its extraordinary natural environment.