Flamingos - Portugal

With their striking plumage, there’s no better creature to grace the saline wetlands of the Algarve than the flamingo, one of the world’s most iconic birds.

With their distinctive stoop, these large aquatic birds are easily recognisable for their sinuous necks, long legs and large webbed feet.

They belong to the phoenicopteridae family, one of the oldest bird groups still in existence with fossil evidence dating right back to the Tertiary period from 66 million to 2.6 million years ago.

Despite the fact that they don’t actually nest in the Algarve – they prefer to rear their chicks in neighbouring Spain, North Africa and further afield – they can occasionally be spotted in southern Portugal during the migratory season between October and May.

A large wading bird, a flamingo can grow to a height of up to 150cm and weigh more than 3 kilos if the food they like is in plentiful supply, which is certainly the case in the Algarve.

They feed on the invertebrates that abound along the shores of southern Portugal, most notably in the inland waterways of the Ria Formosa Natural Park, a vast protected area in the eastern Algarve.

Covering more than 18,000 hectares, Ria Formosa (indicated on the Google map below) is one of the most important wetland areas in the Iberian Peninsula, encompassing a 60-kilometre-long barrier island system between Ancão and Manta Rota just 10km from the Spanish border.

Flamingos lay one egg, seldom two, and the young bird hatches about thirty days later. Generally, it will be ready to fly when it is just over two and a half months old, at which time it has developed a predominantly grey and brown flecked plumage.

The plumage gradually becomes pinkish, often brilliant due to the carotenoid pigments in the bird’s diet, along with some shades of red and black. No other large gregarious birds are quite so colourful and in flight their long necks and legs become fully extended, making their overall shape and colour very easy to distinguish.

Bent in the middle, the flamingo’s bill seems custom-designed for filter-feeding, with the lower mandible large and trough-like and the upper one conveniently shaped like a lid.

After kicking the mud to stir up the food, which mostly consists of seafood and algae, they suck the water through their beaks to gather the nutrients, with their long, flexible necks enabling them to feed upside down.

The flamingo is a very social bird, living and breeding in large colonies, invariably in marshy regions and salt lagoons such as Ria Formosa. Other places to see the fabulous flamingo in souther Portugal include Ria de Alvor, Salgados and the Arade Estuary in the western Algarve.

Further afield, not far from the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, you can also witness large flocks of flamingos in the Sado Estuary near Setúbal and the Tagus Estuary.

A little-known fact about flamingos is that a group (or flock) of them is called a ‘flamboyance’, which along with its name refers to the bird’s often flame-like colour.