PANAMA - PIPELINE ANT MARCH
Pipeline Road has a reputation as being one of the best places in the world to chance upon an ant march and this trip did not disappoint. Don't confuse army ant marches with groups of commonly seen leaf cutters. Army ants predate insects, spiders and even small vertebrates such as mice and birds if they don't flee the marauding ants. Unlike the movie "Army Ants" they are no danger to humans, though they can inflict a painful sting/bite if you blunder into the swarm.
Birders are attracted to ant swarms because of the birds that follow them. They dont eat the ants but instead feed on the insects that try to flee from the ants. We spent a full morning on Pipeline road with our guide from the Canopy Tower, Danilo. Below is an image of the army ants swarming across Pipeline Road right in front of us!
This ant march was a fairly good one for attracting quality birds. Here is an image of PLAIN-BROWN WOODCREEPER with a food item it has found. This species is a common follower of army ants.
Although it can be a bit unnerving to be around the ant swarm (as they frequently climb up your legs if you get in their path!), the photography opportunities can be fantastic. I find if you get into a spot in the path of the ant swarm and just stay there that the birds calm down and come right to you. You can get some amazingly close views and images. In many cases the birds will come within a few feet if you stay still! Below are female and male SPOTTED ANTBIRDS . This is a rather common species in Panama but a really beautiful antbird.
Another "professional" antbird is the BICOLORED ANTBIRD. At ant marches you can often get great views of this bird, but they are exceptionally difficult to see well in other situations. In fact, outside of ant marches I have only seen this species on two other occasions.
Another professional ant follower is the GRAY-HEADED TANAGER. We tend to think of tanagers as frugivores, and indeed most are, but the GRAY-HEADED is a frequent follower of army ants.
A lot of guides move on fairly quickly from ant marches once they feel they have exhausted the birds present. However, I like to spend at least an hour with a good march and will often return to it later on to see if any new birds have popped in. The quality of birds seen at these marches is so good that is often worthwhile. Here is another representative (again from Pipeline Road) of a family that I have seen a number of times at ant marches - puffbirds. This is a WHITE-WHISKERED PUFFBIRD.
The importance of hanging with ant marches as long as possible was brought home with this one. One of THE prize birds of an ant march is OCELLATED ANTBIRD. Although we spent a full hour with the march our first time around we didnt even get a whiff of this species. Nonetheless on our return journey past the march, our guide Danilo heard one singing and we soon had great point blank views of this amazing bird.