The flamingos that over winter on the island are one of Cyprus’ most iconic images. PAUL LAMBIS finds out more about them
Every year, thousands of migratory birds arrive in Cyprus to spend the winter, transforming Larnaca’s famous Salt Lake into a colourful spectacle. The site attracts both locals and visitors (not to mention the recruits in the nearby army camp) who come to the site to see vivid greater flamingos taking centre stage, creating a graceful and colourful scene.
Although flamingos are traditionally pink in colour, flamingos are born with grey feathers that turn pink over time as they mature. However, in 2015, Cyprus made headlines when a rare black greater flamingo was discovered among a flock of white and pink flamingos at the Akrotiri Environmental Centre.
Located near the old Larnaca airport and the Hala Sultan Tekke mosque, the Larnaca salt lake itself has enormous ecological value and is one of the most important wetlands on the island. “As a result, it has been designated as a Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance site, an EU Natura 2000 site, and a Bird Life International Important Bird Area,” Larnaca Tourism Board officer Nana Asmeni Pavlou said. “The area is also protected by the Barcelona Convention and Protocols, which form a unique and advanced multilateral legal framework for the protection of the Mediterranean’s marine and coastal environment and the sustainable use of its resources.”
The ‘lake’ is actually a complex of four salt lakes with a total surface area of more than two square kilometres. According to Pavlou, the main lake, which includes a winding nature path and bird watch tower, is known as Aliki. “The larger lake is followed by lakes Orphani, Soros and Airport, which stretch all the way to the villages of Perivolia, Meneou, and Dromolaxia,” she added.
The dark red algae that grow in the Salt Lake serves as the foundation of the food chain, as small shrimp feed on it. “The shrimp is the primary food source for the greater flamingos, but it also feeds over 85 species of migratory birds,” Pavlou explained. “The inflow of fresh water into the Salt Lake is required to maintain the wetland’s ecological balance.”
The greater flamingos stop at the lake as part of their migratory route, arriving with the first rains in the winter and staying until around March. When the water levels are higher, the greater flamingos can number in the tens of thousands, with nature lovers and walkers along the Aliki path enjoying their distinctive honking noise. “The flamingos honking is actually their way of communicating that they need to stay together, and they tend to avoid humans who come too close to their habitat.”
The Larnaca Salt Lake nature trail is part of a long-distance path in Europe that begins in Tarifa, Andalusia and travels through Morocco, Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece before ending in Cyprus. In Cyprus, however, the trail is four kilometres long, passing through the Kamares Aqueduct and a variety of interesting plant life along the way. “In the area, there was a sanctuary that no longer exists, and an elegant sculpture of the goddess of hunting, Artemis, was discovered there, with a copy now adorning the roundabout on Artemis Avenue,” Pavlou told Living. “The ultra-red sunsets that can be enjoyed on the trail reflect the area’s close connection with the Greek goddess.”
The Hala Sultan Tekke, located in the heart of a spectacular garden on the west bank of the Salt Lake, is one of Islam’s holiest sites. “A popular tourist attraction, the mosque is overseen by the department of antiquities, which is also responsible of its upkeep,” Pavlou said.
The mosque was constructed over a tomb, which, according to tradition, belonged to Umm Haram, a miraculous and holy woman. “As a result, thousands of Muslims visit the mosque every year to be blessed.”
The greater flamingo though is without a doubt the star attraction among the ancient and religious sites and the area’s beautiful flora. These majestic birds filter-feed on brine shrimp by immersing their heads in the water and working the muddy bottom of the lake with their feet. “Juvenile flamingos turn pink over time due to the high levels of beta carotene in their diet of shrimp, crustaceans, and algae. Until then, their plumage will be grey.”
Those wishing to see and take pictures of Larnaca’s feathered visitors are advised not to wade out into the Salt Lake and get too close, as this is extremely harmful to the very sensitive birds, plus can leave you stranded. “The nature path is an excellent place to observe these graceful creatures that play such an important role in our ecosystem.”