Ever since he was four years old, photographer Claudio Contreras has been obsessed with cobb flamingos: their vibrant pink plumage, horn-like curved beak, and elegant, sloping neck.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Cobb visited the Yucatan Peninsula every year during the school holidays. His father built a house on sand dunes in the port village of Chuburna, between the sea and the wetland, and together they watched flamingo colonies gather in the lagoons and muddy marshes that stretched for miles behind the house.
“It was a very beautiful sight when we were able to see the pinkish-orange mass of birds in the distance,” says Cobb. “He stayed in my memory.”
The Caribbean flamingo lives in salty wetlands and coastal waters around Mexico, the Americas, and the Caribbean. Credit: Claudio Contreras Cobb / Nature Picture Library
Cobb hopes that his intimate portraits of the bird will help others “fall in love with the flamingo” and inspire them to care for the wetlands where they live.
from lab to lens
Cobb’s childhood fascination with nature led him to study wildlife biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where he took a course in microphotography and “discovered what the language of photography can do”, he says. Huh.
Combining his passions, Cobb focused on conservation photography upon leaving university. He joined the International League of Conservation Photographers, which in 2009 asked him to capture tagging flamingo chicks in the Yucatan.
“If you disturb someone, they start screaming and flying, and you can create a panic. They can all lay eggs, and leave the colony,” says Cobb.
Cobb spent years gaining the trust of flamingos so that he could photograph their nesting colonies and young chicks. Credit: Claudio Contreras Cobb / Nature Picture Library
Cobb says that his “slow approach” to photography enabled him to collect intimate images of flamingos. He often wore camouflage, the army crawled across the muddy ground to get closer to the birds without fear.
On some occasions, he took a boat to the lagoon before dawn so that the birds would become accustomed to his presence until sunrise, and stayed until after nightfall. “It’s tough, with the sun and 40 degrees (heat),” Cobb says. “It’s very consuming for the body.”
pretty in Pink
Unlike humans, flamingos are well adapted to their extreme environments.
Flamingos use their hooked beaks to feed on shrimp, mollusks and algae that are rich in carotenoids, the pigment that gives them their pink color. Credit: Claudio Contreras Cobb / Nature Picture Library
Their diet includes algae, shrimp and mollusks that contain large amounts of carotenoids — the same pigments that give fruits and vegetables such as carrots, pumpkins and tomatoes — and which are responsible for the flamingo’s signature hot-pink appearance, says Cobb. Huh.
wetlands in danger
Flamingo conservation has been a high priority for Mexico since the 1970s and 80s, when it established two federal wetland reserves on the Yucatan Peninsula, later designated as UNESCO Biosphere Reserves.
Rhea Celestone (pictured) attracts 50,000 tourists every year to see flamingos – although Cobb warns that this may disrupt their eating habits. Credit: Claudio Contreras Cobb / Nature Picture Library
Now, Cobb is back in the Yucatan, staying at his childhood vacation home in Chuberna, photographing wetlands. This time around, horseshoe crabs are his focus, and he hopes he can continue to draw more attention to the wildlife and the communities that live there.
“To most people, the wetland is like a stinky, dark, scary place. But it’s full of wonders—and the flamingo is just one of them,” says Cobb.