They hold them very carefully. Some stroke them to try to relieve their stress, others whisper to them to calm them. More than 500 volunteers, technicians, biologists, vets and people specialising in conservation and ornithology have just taken part in the ringing of young flamingos born recently on the lagoon at Fuente de Piedra. This year 600 chicks have been counted and analysed, and their details placed on an identity register run by the Network for the Study and Conservation of the Common Flamingo in the Mediterranean and Northwest Africa.
This is the 35th year that the process has taken place. Divided into several groups, those taking part started at 6am by driving the chicks towards the corral. The adults flew off, from pure instinct, but the babies hardly know how to flap their wings yet, so they were unable to escape. The previous evening, those in charge had set up a field hospital beside a large area where the chicks awaited their turn.
Their size, weight, length of legs, wings and beak were measured before a blood test, from which in most cases the sex of the birds can be determined. "In some larger or particularly striking birds we take a bigger sample to do a biochemical study," say Sebastián Palacios and Sol Rodríguez, biologists from the Doñana Biological Station who have been coming to the lagoon for three years. In adults, the sex can be distinguished by an expert eye, but in the young birds the only way to tell is through a blood test. Although this is hard work, the volunteers enjoy it and say it is almost like a social occasion.
Each bird is fitted with two rings. The first one, of metal, is "like its ID document, it will be there forever," says Carlos Torralbo, one of the experts. The second one, which is PVC, is used for long-distance reading and can deteriorate over time. "It enables us to read the data with a telescope without having to catch the bird," he explains.
Despite the expert hands and the care with which the birds are moved from one place to another, some do suffer during the process. That's why a temporary veterinary clinic is set up every year by the Andalusian CREAS network (Centres for Recovery of Protected Species). "We treat the birds and help with any problems they experience, which are mostly from the blood test, although some already have injuries when they get here," says vet Juan Carlos Capuz. "Some of the birds are tired from being caught and they just need to be kept apart for a while and allowed to rest". Some have coagulation problems and after the blood test the vets have to stop the bleeding, while other birds get very dirty and can't walk properly because of all the mud.
The ringing is a very valuable scientific process, but this was also a day to celebrate the presence of this pink bird in the Antequera region. Dozens of people volunteer and some come back year after year. Many live locally, others come from elsewhere in the province or other parts of Andalucía, but they all agree that it is a rewarding experience to be able to interact with birds of this type, and something everybody should do at least once in their life.
"My father is one of the people who puts the rings on," says Mercedes Espejo, a volunteer from Fuente de Piedra, as she waits in the queue at the blood test area to carry a bird to the place where they are released. The distance is only about 20 metres, but it is maybe the most emotional and satisfying moment, a reward for a long day of hard work.
"I did this for the first time last year and I didn't want to miss it this year. It is a wonderful experience - well, as long as they don't peck you, that is!" she jokes.