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Saturday, September 5, 2015

Flamingos, At Long Last!

Incredible though it may seem to anyone who has ever spent a winter in or around Astana, Kazakhstan boasts a colony of flamingos for several months out of the year.  Seeing these flamingos in the wild has been on my Kazakhstan bucket list even before we arrived.  I've blogged about my two previous (failed) attempts here and here.

A few weeks ago, one of our colleagues started organizing another trip out to the Korgalzhyn Nature Reserve, which includes Lake Tengiz, where the flamingos stay while in Kazakhstan.  The trip was for today, with a scheduled departure time of 6 AM.  We had a lot of thinking to do.  Should we take the near certain reward of sleeping in on a Saturday morning?  Or should we forgo the sleep and have a long, bumpy ride to Korgalzhyn, where we had already failed to see any flamingos twice before?

We ultimately decided on the trip.  We had an immediate reward of the departure time being pushed back to 7 AM, and a more long term reward of finally seeing the flamingos!

The ride to Korgalzhyn was even bumpier than I had remembered it.  Some of the roads are in pretty poor condition, and the combination of the driver driving over some potholes, swerving wildly to avoid others, and speeding on the relatively smooth sections of road made for an exciting trip.  We stopped at the visitor center where I had taken pictures of the flamingo gate previously as some sort of proof that these flamingos existed.  We had a small breakfast that our guide had packed and used the facilities (outdoor squat toilets with no lighting!).

Mural at the visitor center
 Then we headed off to Lake Tengiz.  As we approached, we could see lots of obviously tall birds in the lake, and my hopes soared.  While the birds appeared white from a distance, they were indeed the flamingos!  With the aid of binoculars and a telescope, we were able to get a much better look at them.  We could really see their pink color when they flapped their wings or flew.  Interestingly, their wings also had black feathers, which was a very striking contrast to the pink.  We could even hear the flamingos honking at each other (I'm not sure that's the term ornithologists would use for flamingo vocalizations, but that's what it sounded like to me!).

Despite Scott's and my many efforts to get good pictures of the flamingos, we didn't have much success.  A better zoom on the camera might have helped some, but the other issue was that the flamingos understandably didn't want much to do with a minibus full of sleep-deprived humans, and tended to fly progressively farther from the lake's shore as they saw and heard us approach.  The two pictures below are probably our best ones of them.  The little white dots are the flamingos.  If nothing else, I think the pictures give an idea of the sheer number of them.

We also found some pink flamingo feathers and what appear to be flamingo tracks

I wasn't at all optimistic about seeing saiga, another famous steppe inhabitant.  And we didn't, although we did see some saiga tracks.  I was happy to even see evidence that they had been in the area.  Between poaching and a mysterious wave of deaths last spring, the saiga have been having a very hard time.

I would have missed these, but the guide pointed out these saiga tracks to us.
After flamingo-watching, we had lunch at a guest house near the visitor center, the same guest house where we ate when we visited Korgalzhyn last spring.  The food was delicious.  I wish I knew of a restaurant with such well-prepared Kazakh cuisine near us.

It was a wonderful day.  It was amazing to be in the presence of large numbers of such an iconic animal in the wild.  Our photos leave much to be desired, but I don't think I'll ever forget watching the flamingos through the binoculars and the telescope.  Whatever else Kazakhstan may have in store for us, I am happy to have had this particular experience.

Beautiful blue sky on the steppe today

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