In 1995 and 1996, there were a number of reports of the Eurasian subspecies of Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber roseus from counties Armagh, Clare, Down, Dublin, Kerry, Londonderry, Sligo and Wicklow (Irish Birdwatching 4(4):10-13). Given the range of dates and locations, it appeared that several birds were involved and there was considerable speculation that these birds were genuine vagrants rather than escapes from captivity - the status usually associated with records of this species. A number of records were ultimately submitted to the IRBC and, while accepting the specific and subspecific identity of the birds was straightforward, the Committee then faced the difficult task of trying to establish the origin of the birds. In an effort to determine the precise pattern of occurrences, the IRBC made a special plea for submission of records and supplementary details in its last report. This plea met with limited success and we have decided to assess the situation on the basis of the material to hand.
Details of Records
The first bird was recorded at Lough Gill, Co. Kerry from 1st to 10th April 1995. One was then reported at the BP Pools in Belfast, Co. Down from 30th April to 7th May 1995. The next locality to host a Greater Flamingo was Broad Lough, Co. Wicklow where one was recorded on a number of dates from 14th May to 11th June with an additional vague report on 16th July 1995. Then one was seen at the Bann Estuary, Co. Londonderry from 21st to 25th July 1995. The south-west featured again with one at Shannon Airport Lagoon, Co. Clare on 1st August. This bird was recorded intermittently both here and at Lough Gill, Co. Kerry until 1st August 1996. These two sites are approximately 100 km apart following a coastal route. There was also a number of other unsubstantiated reports of birds on single dates in such locations as Lough Neagh, Co. Armagh, Sandymount, Dublin and Easky, Co. Sligo.
Given the feeling prevalent at the time of the records, one surprising result to emerge from an analysis of the dates and locations is the complete lack of overlap in dates between records which were satisfactorily substantiated. Furthermore, the records from different parts of the country were usually separated by a gap of at least several days. Thus, contrary to popular opinion and the initial impression created by the geographical spread of records, there is no conclusive evidence that more than one bird was involved. The probability of two or more long-staying (and conspicuous) individuals being recorded only on mutually exclusive dates appears low, especially as the species is noted for its tendency to wander locally within its breeding and wintering areas. The Committee has therefore assumed that only one Greater Flamingo was involved in the series of substantiated records. Naturally, details relating to unsubstantiated records and supplementary evidence concerning accepted records are still welcomed.
Distribution and Movements
The status of Greater Flamingo is well documented in a number of publications and we will confine ourselves to a brief summary relevant to the Palearctic. The subspecies concerned breeds in a number of scattered locations in the south of France, Spain, Italy, North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Greater Flamingo has precise habitat preferences so breeding at many sites is erratic and numbers fluctuate considerably from year to year. The best known population is in the Camargue in France with up to 20,000 pairs. Numbers in Spain vary but up to 16,500 pairs have been recorded. The other main centres of population are Turkey and Mauritania, other areas having much smaller numbers.
Several long-term ringing projects in its main breeding areas in France, Spain, Iran and Kazakhstan (involving over 40,000 birds) have proven that Greater Flamingos are migratory, dispersive and at times erratic in their movements (Johnson 1979, 1989). Birds from the western Mediterranean tend to stay within that area with regular movements to and from north and north-west Africa. Birds in the central Asiatic populations move further south to India, Arabia and north-east Africa. However, some birds do occasionally move further afield with birds from Iran and Kazakhstan having occasionally been recorded in the western Mediterranean. There are two striking features of the species' vagrancy patterns: (i) they usually involve immatures and (ii) while there are north-south and east-west movements, records from beyond the broad areas of its breeding and wintering ranges are rare. For example, birds from the Camargue have very rarely been recorded further north in France. The maximum movement, which involved at least ten birds (one of which was ringed), was in November 1982 after severe storms when birds were recorded from several inland localities in southern France up to 550 km north of the Mediterranean coast (Johnson 1989). Similarly, while birds move along the Mediterranean coast of Spain and the Atlantic coasts of Spain and southern Portugal, records from northern Portugal and the Atlantic coasts of Spain are very rare (Fernández-Cruz et al 1987) with just one record of a Camargue-ringed bird: in north-western Spain in 1977/78 (Johnson 1989 and in litt.).
Small numbers of Greater Flamingos are regularly recorded in Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. It is assumed that many of these birds originate from a small feral mixed species population in Germany, although the Dutch authorities believe that some of their records refer to genuine vagrants from France (J van der Laan in litt.). There is historical evidence of Asiatic birds turning up in Germany (Bauer & Glutz von Blotzheim 1966) and some Dutch observers believe that some of their records are of birds from this source (van den Berg 1987).
One thing that would support the case for the Irish bird being wild would be extralimital records in western Europe during the period. The IRBC issued a request to European correspondents via the Internet to elicit such information and received a number of useful responses from France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. We also liaised with a number of relevant experts on European Greater Flamingos. The results of this enquiry showed that while there was a severe drought in southern Spain in 1995 and birds disappeared from the usual areas, there were no corresponding sightings in northern Spain and Portugal (R Gutiérrez in litt.). Similarly, there were no exceptional movements of the Camargue population and no records from the Atlantic coast of France. There was one record of a bird in Haute-Savoie in eastern France in August 1995 that could possibly have been a genuine vagrant (P Dubois in litt.) but this is only 300 km from the Camargue. In Britain, where there have been a number of records over the years, with most suspected of being escapes from captivity, there was no evidence of unusual numbers in 1995 or 1996 (L Evans pers comm.).
Greater Flamingos, along with other species of flamingo, are commonly kept in captivity in Europe. While there is no record of importations into Ireland in the last six years (per Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry), it is estimated that there are approximately 2-300 birds in captivity in Britain. In official collections, all Greater Flamingos would customarily be pinioned and most would be ringed. However, there could well be full-winged and unringed birds in private collections. Such birds have been confiscated by customs officials in the past and were destined for private collections (D Pickering in litt.).
We can understand that given the apparent circumstances in 1995 and 1996, many observers anticipated that the records would be accepted as referring to wild birds, the belief being that there had been a small influx. As stated above, we are assuming from the data on record that there was only one bird involved. On the question of origin, the case in favour of it being a wild bird can be summarised as follows:-
- its plumage was in excellent condition and showed no signs of abrasion or wear;
- it was unringed, or at least did not carry a "captive-type" ring;
- the first record occurred at the "right" time of year;
- many birds had deserted their usual haunts in Spain due to drought.
On the other side of the argument, the case for it being an escape from captivity or from a feral population is as follows:-
- undoubted escaped/feral Chilean Flamingos Phoenicopterus chilensis are often unringed and are usually also in excellent condition;
- if it was deemed to have come from Spain (or France), there were no supporting records from northern Spain or the Atlantic coast of France;
- if it was deemed to have originated from an Asiatic population, there was no evidence of an influx from that source in continental Europe;
- in either scenario, one would have expected evidence of such an influx to be detected in Britain;
- there is a captive population and a proven history of flamingo species generally escaping from captivity;
- the bird was an adult; almost all confirmed cases of vagrancy in this species have involved immatures.
At the end of the day there is no irrefutable proof one way or the other as to the origin of the bird in question and it comes down to a matter of opinion. Some of the correspondents felt it must be an escape from captivity while others were equally convinced that we had good grounds for considering it a wild bird. After careful deliberation, the Committee concluded that the arguments in favour of it being a genuine vagrant from a wild population were not sufficiently strong and failed to outweigh the likelihood of it having been an escape from captivity or an individual from a feral population. However, as stated above, this decision is based on the available evidence and if further relevant information comes to hand, the records will be reconsidered.
Submission of Records
As is the case every year, we make a special plea to all observers to improve the level of record submission. There has been a reasonable response to the list of unsubstantiated reports referred in our last report but many descriptions remain outstanding.
The IRBC is grateful to Valerio Capello, Luis Costa, Philippe Dubois, Lee Evans, Goncalo Elias, Alan Johnson, Ricard Gutiérrez, David Pickering, Arnoud van den Berg and Jan van der Laan for the information they kindly supplied on the status of Greater Flamingo in Europe.
Bauer K.M. & Glutz von Blotzheim, U N. (eds.) 1966. Handbuch der Vögel Mitteleuropas. Vol. 1. Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft, Frankfurt on Main.
Fernández-Cruz M, Martín-Novella C, París M, Izquierdo E, Camacho M, Rendón M, Rubio J C. 1987. Revisión y puesta al día de la invernada del Flamenco (Phoenicopterus ruber roseus) en la Península Ibérica. In: Tellería, J L (ed.) Invernada de Aves en la Península Ibérica 23-53. Monografías de la S.E.O. 1. Sociedad Española de Ornitología, Madrid.
Johnson A.R. 1979. Greater Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber roseus) ringing in the Camargue and an analysis of recoveries. Ring 100:53-58.
Johnson A.R. 1989. Movements of Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber roseus) in the western Palearctic. Revue d'Ecologie (La Terre et La Vie) 44:75-94.
van den Berg, A.B. 1987. Voorkomen, herkenning en status van flamingo's in Nederland. Dutch Birding 9:2-7.