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Dana Beach flocks to East Africa to photograph flamingos

Birds of a Feather

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With its curved black bill, skinny pink legs, and long neck, the flamingo is certainly an odd-looking bird. Graceful and awkward, flamingos have been descending on the salty lakes of East Africa for 30 million years. And few Lowcountry residents know these creatures quite like Dana Beach.

During SEWE, Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, will exhibit his photographs of the skinny-legged birds doing all the things that flamingos do — feeding, flying, standing at the shores of the lake, perching in your neighbor's yard with steel poles up their butts. (OK, scratch that last bit.)

Beach's first trip to Africa was with his new bride on their honeymoon in the 1980s, but in 2008, he traveled to East Africa with family and friends. While there, he met William Kimospo, the warden of Lake Bogoria in Kenya's Great Rift Valley. The two discussed plans to create the Kenya Trans Rift Trail, a 50-mile hiking trail.

Beach says the magnificence of the valley and the connection to man drew him to the land. Home of one of the oldest archeological sites, the Great Rift Valley is very dry, making it perfect for forming fossils. "It's a geologically fascinating place," Beach says. "Because of the physical make-up, you can see the world in its early stages."

Lake Bogoria is also the largest flamingo habitat in the world. The high alkaline water of the lake causes blue-green algae to grow, drawing millions of flamingos each year.

In 2010, Beach returned to the Great Rift Valley and spent three days photographing flamingos on the lake. And although he calls himself an amateur photographer, the high-quality images reveal his appreciation of this unique environment. In "Flamingos," Beach captures a small group of birds in motion, about to lift off the surface of the lake. Slightly blurred, the viewer senses the movement of the birds. Taken early in the morning, Beach says, "The flamingos were beginning to move around as the sun rose over the eastern escarpment of the Rift Valley. I wanted to see if I could convey the color and movement of the birds very simply, without details that might distract the viewer. I have a Nikon D-80 and was shooting with a slow shutter speed, 1/60th of a second."

He uses a 70-300 Nikon zoom lens with vibration reduction, which he says is key for hand-held bird photography.

"Flamingos 2" was taken near sunset with a fast shutter speed. "I like the depth of field here and the reflections of the pink birds in the almost black water," he says. This image captures the chaos and density of the flamingo tribe. Hundreds of black bills blur in the background and toward the front of the image, their skinny legs straight or bent like broken toothpicks. The contrast between the flat horizon of the standing birds and the few that soar above their heads evokes the feeling of a performance, as if these birds were taking part in a dance.

"Flamingos 1" is still and quiet as the birds dip their bills into the rippling blue-gray water. Beach says he loves the shapes of the birds' necks while they feed and the reflections on the lake. "The dark water is like a textured canvas," he says. "It's hard to imagine more exotic forms in nature."

Creating the Great Rift Valley trail is an ongoing process that Beach hopes will bring him back to Kenya. "I feel fortunate to have met some extraordinary people who are doing ambitious and inspiring work in an extremely challenging place," he says.

Back in South Carolina, Beach is well known for his conservation efforts. In 1989, he founded the Coastal Conservation League and has been working tirelessly on projects that include clean energy, rural land conservation, and public health.

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