Almost everyone in Fuente de Piedra is asleep with just a few people gathered in the bars in the main street with coffees in hand, before an early morning start. However, in the heart of the natural landscape, there is some rather more frenetic activity going on. Over 500 people saw the sun come up as a team brought a group of the thousands of pink flamenco chicks that have been born during this breeding season into the enclosure.
The practice of ringing the birds, which this year marks 35 years, is much more than an act of conservation: the passion of the volunteers and the ringers keeps alive this essential tradition sponsored by Unicaja Foundation for the scientific community around the world and also for the province of Malaga.
Last Saturday began in the dark and around five o'clock in the morning the different groups advanced in silence, scaring off the adult flamingos and leaving the chicks behind - they still cannot fly more than slightly off the ground. Little by little, a thousand, grey-feathered young flamingos entered the enclosure, one by one joining the ringing queue.
First the measurements of each bird were taken, from the weight to the length and width of the beak. Then two rings were placed, one made of PVC and the other of steel, which can be seen from a long distance and allows scientists and ornithologists of the international community to know the origin of each bird, its characteristics and the date it was born.
Some of the chicks went on to a second area in which other physiological data were extracted by means of a blood test that takes a few days to be processed in a laboratory. When it's all over (volunteers work tirelessly to keep stress to a minimum), it's time for release. With great care and after having been instructed in a meeting held the previous day in the Fuente de Piedra sports centre, the participants took each chick to the release area. "This moment is very important", explains Gustavo Terol, member of the organisation and veteran flamingo ringer. "We have to let them go facing us, so that they feel obliged to go in the opposite direction and take the first steps backwards". This reduces the impact on the limbs of the animal, which has spent several minutes restrained while being ringed. "If they run directly, they can break a leg, so it is very important that they first walk backwards until they turn around," he explains.
Among the 500 volunteers there are all kinds of stories. Many of them come each year as a family tradition. Some are linked to the scientific world, others are not, but it doesn't matter. Qualified hands are in charge of the most delicate procedures, as well as vets who treat the offspring that were already injured when they arrived at the enclosure or those that suffer some kind of injury during the process.
Carlos and Paula participated in the day for the first time, although her family regularly visits the lagoon. "I've been wondering all day about how we can have this amazing virgin space surrounded by roads and near the town," says Paula. Carlos had never been to the spot, so it was double the surprise. "I didn't know this place, so the mere fact of having been able to spend the night here and watch the sunrise surrounded by flamingos has been an unforgettable experience, we'll come again next year". Both agree that the feeling of being part of a team is overwhelming. "You are in the dark, walking blindly following the instructions of those responsible, and when the sun rises a little you see the silhouettes of all the others who have come from different angles to encircle the chicks, it's amazing".
An exemplary year
This breeding season 7,472 pink flamingo chicks have been born - the largest variety of the species - from 9,000 breeding pairs. The minister of the Environment for the Junta de Andalucía, Carmen Crespo, explained that despite the fact that the hydrological year had not been the most abundant, circumstances for breeding in the lagoon were very good, resulting in a high survival rate. "You have to remember that last year 2,410 were recorded," added Crespo, who also confirmed the commitment of the Andalusian administration to ensure the conservation of the site and birds.
This is the third year in which the births have been counted by using drones. "In the past you had to get in an airplane, take photographs and count one by one," director of the conservation of the site, Manuel Rendón explains to SUR.
Once the ringing of the 600 flamingo chicks that are censured each year was finished, the rest of the captured ones were released, in one of the most emotional moments of the day. The volunteers arranged themselves in two rows encircling the release zone and said a silent goodbye to the offspring as they raced towards the zone in which their parents were waiting for them.