GREAT INAGUA, Bahamas - The four-wheel-drive Ford pickup lurches around a curve in the rock-and-rubble road and pitches to a stop on top of the dike. Below us, about 200 feet away, a dozen flamingos stand frozen in place like lawn ornaments in the shallows of a windswept saltwater lagoon.
Every bird is facing into the breeze, poised to take flight. Overhead, a line of flamingos stretching more than 100 feet from first bird to last flies toward the far shore, the trailing edges of each magnificent bird's hot-pink wings etched in black.
A half-mile away, on the other side of the lagoon, a thin pink smear extends across the full arc of the horizon.
"There are thousands there. Maybe 5,000. Maybe more," says Henry Nixon, senior warden of Inagua National Park and protector of the 60,000 flamingos and more than 130 other bird species that live on remote Great Inagua island in the Bahamas.
But even this flamingo-filled panorama pales in comparison with the scene just before the females lay their eggs in early spring, when scattered groups of flamingos gather to form a single mega-flock.
Responding to some inner cue, the world's largest breeding colony of West Indian flamingos rises as one to fill the sky. If conditions are exactly right, Nixon says, sunlight reflected off the backs of tens of thousands of flamingos turns the underside of low-hanging clouds pink.
I've come to Great Inagua for a week with my friend John McCall to bird-watch, fish, and explore this salt-encrusted island 400 miles southeast of Nassau and 55 miles north of the eastern tip of Cuba.
In our eight days on the island, it's easy to find exotic birds and obliging fish. It's harder to find a restaurant, a place to stay, or something to do after a day of birding or fishing.
Only about 800 people live on Great Inagua, the third-largest island in the Bahamas. There are no luxury hotels, no casinos, no place to rent jet skis or get a Shiatsu massage. Meals, when you can find them, are, well, surprising. One morning, I breakfasted on warmed tuna fish and hot buttery grits - quite tasty, actually - the only food on offer in the dining room of the Main House in Matthew Town, one of a half-dozen places on the island that offer rooms to tourists.
Despite the barriers, hundreds of hardy travelers come here every year in late winter and early spring to see the quirky head-bobbing, strutting, wing-flicking courtship rituals of the flamingo. A handful of other visitors comes to fish or dive or just for a taste of the old Bahamas.
Most visitors fly into the island's only airport, outside Matthew Town, or come by sailboat.
Outside the park, Great Inagua is a virtual domain of Morton Salt, the island's largest employer. Morton harvests a million tons of salt annually from huge evaporative saltwater reservoirs called "pans" that border the park.
The saltworks and the flamingos enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship. Brine shrimp thrive in the salt pans. These tiny crustaceans are a favored food of the flamingo and the source of the bird's distinctive reddish-pink coloration. The birds are filter feeders, so they help keep the brine shrimp and other small organisms in check.
At the beginning of the last century, the West Indian flamingo was virtually extinct throughout its range, hunted nearly to the vanishing point for food or for its feathers.
In the early 1950s, Nixon's father and uncle, both professional hunters, took Audubon Society director of research Robert Porter Allen deep into the island's harsh interior. Chasing a rumor, Allen had come to Great Inagua to find one of the world's last breeding colonies of West Indian flamingos.
The party found "a few hundred scraggly birds," Nixon tells us. Allen hired the brothers to watch over the flock - "The hunters had become the protectors."
Through the efforts of the Audubon Society and other conservationists, the Bahamian government created Inagua National Park in 1965. The Nixons were retained as wardens.
Today, this 183,740-acre wildlife sanctuary encompasses more than half the island. Birds dominate the park, and flamingos are the stars. But as I learn on a tour of the park with Nixon, flamingos aren't the only feathery attractions on Great Inagua.
"Sanderlings, sandpipers, snowy plovers," Nixon ticks off the names of a profusion of shorebirds that stand in the shallows or hunt at water's edge on a 50-foot stretch of shoreline below a rocky road that runs along the top of a dike.
"Pintail duck," Nixon says moments later as a bird flushes from the water's edge. "Gull-billed terns." He points to a small flock of feeding birds sporting black head caps, white underbodies, and deeply forked tails.
We keep driving, and birds keep appearing: elegant terns with their black crests and orange beaks, reddish egrets - both the red and white morphs of the species are found here - and tricolored herons. "There's a burrowing owl nest," Nixon says as we pass a low, sandy mound and entry hole.
A few hundred yards farther, however, we encounter the first of several scenes of unnerving desolation. Years ago, this pond had been a scrub forest of oak and silver buttonwood trees. Then an adjacent salt pan overflowed and covered the land with toxic brine.
Today, sharp-edged gray chunks of rotted limestone sit in the mud on a barren shore. Black, limbless tree trunks jut from the toxic water, the skeletal remains of the trees that once grew here. This killing field extends several square miles along the road.
There are no birds here, so we drive on.
A solitary flamingo flushes from the shallows beside the road and flies off to join a large flock in the far distance. On the road a hundred yards ahead, six adults and a small girl are standing near a van. They're the only other people we see in the park that day. We stop to talk.
They're French citizens island-hopping through the Caribbean and the Bahamas. They live aboard three sailboats: a family of three, a married couple in their 70s, and two brothers.
"We travel to find wild places, remote places, pure nature," says Sebastien Collard, 42, originally from Brittany, who's sailing with his wife and daughter and has been on Great Inagua and its sister, nearby Little Inagua, for a month. "And for wildlife, this is the best."
Does he tell others to come to Great Inagua?
"No. I tell them to stay away," he laughs. "More tourists. More pollution. Less wildlife. A bit selfish, yes?"
A word about birding on Great Inagua. On any given day, you'll see hundreds, probably thousands of flamingos. But don't expect to walk among them, particularly during the spring breeding season.
Blame the wild boars, the descendants of pigs that came with French soldiers who built a garrison on the island in 1749, when the French, British, Dutch, and Spanish were seeking dominance in the New World. The French stay was brief - the troops fled when the British dispatched warships to claim the island as their own. The boars, however, remained and flourished.
When Nixon, who's now 56, was growing up, flamingos nested along the roadways. But the boars developed a taste for flamingo eggs and newly hatched chicks. "They can wipe out a rookery in a single night," Nixon says. "But wild boars avoid water. So the flamingos now nest in the middle of the lakes," far from marauding boars and inquisitive tourists.
We come to the end of the road, as close as most tourists can get to the rookery on Flamingo Key during the breeding season. It's nearly a mile from the nursery site in the middle of a now-dry seasonal lake.
There are no newly hatched birds to observe today, even with high-powered binoculars. "The flamingos didn't nest this year," Nixon says. "It was too dry."
It's early afternoon, and our park tour ends. Nixon turns the truck and heads back toward Matthew Town. But I want a final look at Inagua's famous flamingos. Nixon reluctantly agrees and turns back into the park.
The wind has picked up. Fast-moving rain clouds roll in. We drive to a narrow dike road inches above the water. In low spots, saltwater and sea foam flow across the road.
A hundred yards ahead, several dozen flamingos stand in the shallows. Nixon stops the truck. The birds spot us and start ostrich-stepping into the wind, wings flapping, legs bicycling as they struggle to gain lift. ("A flamingo is like an airplane," Nixon explained earlier. "They have to take off into the wind. If they don't, they flip over.")
As awkward as they can be on land, a flamingo in the air is pure pink poetry, its impossibly long neck arched forward and its impossibly long legs extending back, like a javelin in flight, perfectly balanced in the air.
The flamingos bank steeply to the left and catch the wind, which carries them far down the flooding roadway.
I say: "We can go back now."
The Main House, a historic hotel offering six comfortable rooms from $60 to $85 a night.
Enrica's Inn, a short walk from the center of town, has three well-appointed cabins for $85 to $130 a night.
The Main House serves breakfast and lunch but not dinner. Menu selections are limited and vary by the day. $8 to $15.
The Cozy Corner serves burgers, chicken fingers, and occasional specialty dishes such as wild boar, conch fritters, and grouper. A cheeseburger and a cold beer cost less than $15.
Inagua National Park is a birder's paradise. Senior park warden Henry Nixon will take you for a daylong tour of the park and its birds. Cost varies depending on what you want to see and do. We paid $50 each for a five-hour tour. www.bahamas.com/node/52146
Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters arranges weeklong angling trips to island native Henry Hugh's Inagua Outback Lodge for $1,799 per person, which includes meals, lodging and a day of guided fishing. www.ccoflyfishing.com/greatinagua.html
Morton Salt Factory has tours by prior arrangement through your hotel operator. EndText