Amazing Antbirds

9:39 PM

Anyone who visits a forested area of Central or South America will likely come across antbirds – a large and spectacular group of passerines that employ even more interesting behaviours when it comes to feeding.  First of all, as quoted from Steve Hilty’s Birds of Tropical America, “antbirds don’t eat ants!”  There are some species of antbirds that follow and forage around swarms of army ants (another tropical forest extravaganza all together).  They are not interested in eating the ants, but rather the multitude of insects, spiders, frogs, lizards and other creatures that the ants disturb as they blanket the forest floor.  Certain species are called obligate ant-following antbirds, such as the Bicolored Antbird and Ocellated Antbird, whose entire breeding success and lifestyle relies on following army ants.  

Along with the obligate ant-following antbirds, the families (antbirds and relatives are now split into 3 taxonomic families) contains many other species that have little or no interaction with army ants at all.  These include the antshrikes, antwrens, antvireos, antthrushes, and antpittas, aptly named after the birds they somewhat resemble in shape, size and behaviour.  

Bicolored Antbird, Photo by Jenn Sinasac

A recent trip to Panama gave me a plenty of opportunities to get up close and personal with some fascinating antbirds.  Along the famous Pipeline Road during Panama’s dry season, swarming army ants are rather easy to come across.  Usually, I hear the birds first – their low-tone groans and squabbles immediately tell me that there is a feeding frenzy nearby.  Spotted, Bicolored and if you’re lucky, Ocellated Antbirds hold onto vertical sticks close to the ground to snap up a cockroach or spider.  

Ocellated Antbirds are one of the most sought-after species; their large size, scalloped back, blue facial patch and shaggy pale crown delights just about any observer.  In addition to the antbird activity, other species including Northern Barred Woodcreeper, Plain-brown Woodcreeper, Gray-headed Tanagers, and even perhaps a Rufous Motmot might stop by a large ant swarm to scoop up some insects.  However this time, I got even luckier.  A rare Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo (Neomorphus geoffroyi) was frequenting an ant swarm right along Pipeline Road, foraging just feet away from the road.  A good friend (and excellent bird guide) alerted me to its location and sure enough, there it was!  I have only seen this species once before, and just as it was running away (they can run fast!  Often dubbed the roadrunner of the tropics), so this time I was lucky to have some fantastic looks and snap some decent photos.  Two days later, the bird was still there, right beside the road, continuing to make groups of birders and photographers very happy!

Rufous-vented Ground-Cuckoo, Photo by Jenn Sinasac

After years of traveling, working and birding in Tropical America, ant swarms and the array of birdlife they attract is still my most favourite thing to come across in a rainforest.  Sometimes I get so into watching all the activity that before I know it, army ants are swarming halfway up my legs! 

Happy Birding!

~ Jenn Sinasac

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