Landscape with flamingos, water, salt flats and mountains
Bird Weekly,  Birds,  Chile,  Travel galleries

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

36 Comments

  • Simone

    Wonderful Sarah! Especially the reflection photos! I can imagine that your camera went totally crazy here trying to capture those gorgeous reflections 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Simone – yes, I went pretty mad with the camera 🙂 With this combination of landscape and bird reflections, I think most people would!

  • Nancy Gordon

    I love all the flamingos, they’re beautiful birds and your pictures are excellent. I’ve never seen them fly so that was unique to see pictures of that.

  • wetanddustyroads

    Lovely birds! I’ve used to watched them for hours at the Ramsar wetlands where I grew up … for me, they are the ballerinas of the birds. Great photo of that one flamingo in flight 👍🏻.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you – I suspect most photographers would say the same even if they don’t have a particular interest in birds. The combination of flamingos and desert landscape is irresistible!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Terri 🙂 We loved Chile – such a beautiful country and with so much variety, from the Atacama in the north to the Torres del Paine in the south! We liked Santiago too, although it doesn’t get as much praise as some other S American cities. I hope you get to go!

  • Lisa Coleman

    Such gorgeous shots! I would love to visit South America and see these for myself. I find it so interesting that there are 3 species close to the same range, yet they all are different in some little ways. Until we saw the flamingo in north Florida, I had never seen one in the wild….only at the zoo! So the lone Flamingo was a lifer and the only one we have ever seen. In my mind, they have always been what fairy tales are made of. LOL! 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m glad you loved my flamingos Lisa 🙂 This is the only place I’ve got a really close look at them, other than Jersey Zoo which has a beautiful group of Chilean Flamingos, the ones we saw (at much more of a distance) in the Torres del Paine NP 🙂

      • Lisa Coleman

        Just spectacular! The photos you got are breathtaking! The zoo Flamingos don’t count…not really. Great to see, but in the birding world, they can’t be counted on your life list unless they are in the wild. 🙂 I need to win the lottery so I can just travel everywhere to see as many birds in my lifetime as I can. LOL!

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I tend to agree that seeing any animal in a zoo doesn’t really count. I’m not a big fan of most zoos but Jersey is one of those that really does take good care of the animals and has done a lot for conservation. It was founded by Gerald Durrell who was passionate about animals and their survival.

          • Lisa Coleman

            I don’t have a problem with zoos because of the conservation and if they can protect and help bring back a species that is close to extinction, I’m all for it! We can’t count the birds seen in captivity to our official bird list. That is why rookeries are so important. Provides a pretty safe environment for birds while they still have their freedom. 🙂

          • Sarah Wilkie

            I like good zoos that look after their animals well and put plenty of emphasis on conservation, education and research. But I feel very uncomfortable with zoos that pen the animals up in too small a space and don’t give them an environment as close as possible to their natural one. Fortunately the trend in recent years has been towards the former and we’ve visited some excellent zoos and animal sanctuaries 🙂 But I can quite understand that birds seen there don’t count, as they hardly involve much effort if captive!

  • restlessjo

    It’s a fabulous backdrop, isn’t it, Sarah? 🙂 🙂 We have loads of flamingos here, for the same sort of reasons, but I don’t have many decent captures of them. Love yours!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Absolutely Jo – I loved the landscape as much as I did the birds, and the two together made an amazing combination for photos!! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  • Anna

    This might be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said, but I didn’t realise flamingos can fly! I just thought they stood around a lot. I just told my husband and he rolled his eyes and was “of course they can fly”, I feel stoopid 🤣🤣🤣

    • Sarah Wilkie

      What can I say Anna? If I agree you’re dumb I’m insulting you, but if I say that isn’t dumb I look dumb myself 🤣🤣 But good on you for admitting your ignorance!! You’ve given me my first laugh of the day 😂😘

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