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A Flamingo Paradise 

Cyprus is the island of migratory birds. Up to 400 species stop off at the famous salt lakes on their migration. The most famous feathered visitors are the flamingos. Bird watching on Cyprus is a real highlight — including for families.

Between November and March, thousands of beautiful pink flamingos take residence in Cyprus where the salt lakes offer plenty of brine shrimp for them to feed on. Brine shrimps give flamingos their striking colour. The salt lakes dry out in summer and are not inhabited by birds then, but fill with water again in the autumn. Amazingly, the brine shrimp eggs are able to survive the summer heat and drought. When the shrimp eggs hatch, the salt lakes transform into a real banquet for flamingos and other migratory birds (as long as they are in the water, the female brine shrimps that hatched from the eggs are capable of live birth).

Photos: Sandra Casalini

Two exclusive bird species

"Cyprus has plenty to attract migratory birds," Marin Hellicar explains. He is an ornithologist and works for the "Birdlife Cyprus" organisation, a branch of "Birdlife International" that is devoted to bird protection. On the one hand, Cyprus, situated in the heart of the Mediterranean between two continents, is an ideal location for migratory birds. "Birds travelling from Europe to Africa, but also those flying from the Turkish, Israeli or Iranian coast, enjoy stopping off here," says Hellicar. Many of them even decide to stay, because they have everything they need there.

Because of the mild Mediterranean climate, the bodies of water do not freeze over, so that a wide range of bird species can find sufficient food and protection along the shores to nest and raise their young. The innumerable bird species include various lapwings, swallows, herons, sandpipers and falcons, mentioning but a few. The local bird watchers are particularly proud of two local species: the Cyprus warbler and the Cyprus wheatear, indigenous to the island and found nowhere else in the world.

Migratory birds suffer from the impact of climate change

Just like the environment elsewhere in the world, Cyprus’ flora and fauna is also endangered: "Bird habitats are increasingly disappearing," Martin Hellicar says. "In economic terms, roads or farmland happen to be more interesting. In addition, birds are hunted illegally or disturbed by humans, when they let their dogs off the leash along the shores of the salt lakes, for instance." Climate change also plays a role. According to Martin Hellicar, migratory birds are particularly prone to suffer from the impact of climate change. "More and more species are becoming extinct. This has a significant impact on biodiversity, and on the overall balance of wildlife." Though the consequences of this extinction are not always immediately apparent, "they are devastating in the long run — for example, if the extinction of insectivores leads to a proliferation of insects that damage not only nature, but also transmit diseases." The number of migratory birds has already decreased considerably in recent years, including on the island of Cyprus. "That is a tragedy," says Hellicar. "A unilateral system is always weak. We need biodiversity." In addition, many migratory birds no longer migrate as a result of global warming. "We do not know whether this will have consequences, and what they might be."

"Wildlife Cyprus" has set the goal to preserve and protect the birds‘ habitats, by cleaning the salt lakes, for instance. "The authorities are also on board now, because they realise the lakes, in general, and the flamingos, in particular, are a tourist magnet," Martin Hellicar adds. One of the most popular salt lakes is the Larnaca Salt Lake within close proximity of Larnaca Airport. It is the second-largest lake on the island after the Limassol Salt Lake. The Larnaca Salt Lake, actually formed of four lakes (Aliki, Orphani, Soros and Spiro), is home to 190 species of water birds with a population of between 20,000 and 38,000.

The Oroklini Lake is situated just twenty kilometres from the Larnaca Salt Lake. This smaller lake is a paradise for birds – and bird lovers. Why? Whereas herons, ibises, snipes, and also flamingos, rarely tend to frequent the shores of the larger lakes, a close-up view is possible at the Oroklini Lake. The lake is fenced in, to make sure the animals can breed without disruption. But there is a lookout platform by the shore from where the lake’s wildlife can be watched in peace. A circling buzzard hunting for ducklings. A spoonbill searching for food. Sleeping flamingos. Apropos: why do flamingos sleep standing on one leg? "While there is no conclusive answer to this question yet, it is believed that the flamingos lose body heat through their legs and feet. In order to conserve heat when in the water, they stand on one rather than on two legs," Martin Hellicar explains.

Up to 20.000 flamingos

Incidentally, Cyprus has been honoured by the presence of a very special visitor: a black flamingo. Unlike the grey colour which flamingos have when they are young, the black flamingo is thought to have a genetic condition. This particular bird seems to produce more melanin —dark pigmentation— than the other flamingos. So far, only one such black flamingo has been sighted on the island, and has generated considerable media attention.

Each year in January, the flamingos residing at the island’s salt lakes are counted. Some years, there have been as few as 3,000 birds, other years, as many as 20,000. On average, roughly 10,000 to 15,000 flamingos stop off on the island. They all belong to the species of the Greater Flamingo, which is the largest existing flamingo species. Greater Flamingos are between 110 and 150 cm (44-60 in.) tall, but weigh just two to four kilograms. Their slender bodies are the reason why they fly with such grace and elegance. These "frequent fliers" enjoy travelling from salt lake to salt lake.

A highlight for children

A visit to this special island is not just a treat in summer — and not just for bird watchers. Especially families should not miss the chance for an excursion to the salt lakes, combined with a picnic or a meal in a typical taverna. By the way, a day at the Larnaca Salt Lake also happens to be a popular Sunday outing for the locals. Even though, unlike us, their familiarity with flamingos clearly goes beyond visits to the zoo.

"Birdlife Cyprus" offers bird watching tours to the Oraklini Lake, but also to other salt lakes. For bookings and information, go to www.birdlifecyprus.org

(Text: Sandra Casalini)