Landscape with flamingos, water, salt flats and mountains
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Gallery: the flamingos of the Salar de Atacama

The only way to properly appreciate the vastness of Chile’s Salar de Atacama would be to fly over it; but a visit at ground level offers a spectacular sight of the varied colours of this unworldly landscape. Before you visit the Atacama you will no doubt read or be told that it is the driest non-polar desert in the world, with no significant rainfall for 400 years. It is surprising then to arrive at the Laguna Chaxa and see so much water!

The salt flats lie in a depression surrounded by mountains. Many of these are volcanoes, including Quimal, Licancábur and Láscar (the most active). They form a colourful backdrop to the contorted crystalline formations. Within the depression are some even deeper parts, where water collects and forms saline lagoons such as here at Chaxa.

Heavily salinated, and shallow, the lagoon (like others in the Atacama) is fed by snow run-off from the surrounding Andes. The snow absorbs the natural salts of the land and then evaporates in the hot dry desert sun, leaving the salt crust and crystalline formations that surround it.

Photographing the flamingos

Chaxa is a breeding site for the flamingos that give the reserve its name, the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos, as well as for many other water birds. They are drawn here by the many microscopic organisms such as algae and invertebrates; these thrive in this brackish environment and provide food for the birds. It is somewhat bizarre to see so much wildlife in such a barren landscape as well as to see water in the desert! The shallowness and stillness of the water also makes for perfect reflections; I took more photos in the space of the 30 minutes or so we spent here than in the same time frame anywhere else in Chile!

There are several places in the Atacama Desert where you can see flamingos, and the numbers can vary; but for us it was the Laguna Chaxa that provided the greatest concentration and the best photo opportunities. When we first arrived at the lagoon I started to take a few photos of the birds I could see in the distance, with my zoom lens set to its highest magnification.

Landscape with water, salt flats and mountains
Spot the flamingo!

But I quickly learned that this wasn’t needed, as from several points along the trail we could get close enough to get nicely detailed and composed shots with only a medium zoom setting. Even with just a standard lens I think you would be pleased with the shots you get here. I even managed to get several shots of the birds in flight.

Art edit image of single flamingo in flight
In flight

Flamingo species

There are three species of flamingo that breed here: the Andean, the Chilean and the James flamingo. The ones in my photos are I think all Andean which have this distinctive yellow and black bill. The Chilean (which we were to see later in our trip in the Torres del Paine NP) look similar but have an all black bill; while the James share the multi-coloured bill of the Andean but have less black plumage. The Andean flamingo, which stands about 102-110 centimetres, is also the only one in the species to have yellow legs (the others have pink or greyish ones) and feet (the others all have pink).

You may think that some of these birds appear to have black feet; but if you look closely you see that this is sediment from the floor of the lagoon, rich in the algae that the flamingos come here to feed on. It sometimes looks a bit as if they are wearing wellington boots to wade in!

I have already shared one photo of these beautiful birds in a previous post, Reflecting on Birds; but they surely merit a post all to themselves. So here is a selection of my favourite photos taken there for this week’s Bird Weekly theme of Birds beginning with F.

Landscape with flamingo, water, salt flats and mountains
Backdrop of volcanoes
Landscape with flamingos, water, salt flats and mountains
Flamingos in the landscape
Landscape with flamingos, water and salt flats
Flamingos feeding
Landscape with flamingos, water, salt flats and mountains
Taking off
Five flamingos flying overhead
Flamingos overhead
Flamingo wading in blue water
Flamingo passing by

More flamingos feeding

I visited the Atacama Desert in 2016

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