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SWARMING ANTS: THE HORROR (THE ECSTASY!)

By Nic.Korte

My wife, Mary, is almost perfect. But, there is one characteristic I would change. Her reactions to unpleasant events seem the same to me whether she believes my habit of birding while driving is about to cause a head-on or whether she’s realized we have run out of an ingredient she needed for cooking dinner.

So it was a couple of weeks ago when I heard her exclaim with horror in the small cabin we were renting in southern Costa Rica. She was preparing dinner. “She's cut or burned herself badly,” I thought. I ran to the room. No. It was ants! The two pañuelos we had selected for breakfast at the local panaderia were literally black with tiny ants. The sack containing a whole-grain bread, difficult-to-find here, had also been breached. The pañuelos were history. A heavily-covered poppy seed roll was never so black. We brushed off the bread and re-wrapped it. The ants were unpleasant, but not a catastrophe.

The next morning we went birding at the nearby Las Cruces Biological Station—part of the Organization for Tropical Studies (http://www.ots.ac.cr). This has been one of our favorite places to visit (http://www.gjsentinel.com/blogs/birds_and_more/entry/green-mansions). We were going birding, but what we really wanted to find were swarming ants! So why didn't we stay home and watch our baked goods?

Eciton burchellii are popularly known as army ants. Peaceful Costa Rica loves to point out that such ants are the only army in their country. It is true that they are a swarming army of sorts, but it is not true, as has been shown in old movies, that they eat everything in their path including humans.

Army ants live a nomadic life. They form armies of half a million ants that march from temporary nests or ‘bivouacs.’ For about three weeks, they march out and return to the same camp until the larvae hatch. Then for two weeks, the army moves to a new location every night. Finally, the larvae pupate and the horde selects another three-week bivouac.

(Army ants on the march.)

These ants forage as an army spreading out over the jungle floor, crawling up limbs and tree trunks, and hunting under every leaf. Insects of every kind flee frantically, and that’s what brings the antbirds. (Read more about the ecological importance of army ants at:
http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2010/11/30/an-entire-world-follows-the-march-of-the-army-ants/)

Found mostly in the lowland tropics, there is a large group of birds with “ant-“in their names: antbirds, antshrikes, antpittas, antthrushes, and more. While not all of these depend on army ants, some are obligate ant followers, meaning they forage not on the army ants themselves, but on the insects fleeing the army ants. When a large group of birds is attending foraging army ants, the event is called an antswarm. A good antswarm can have more than a dozen bird species with multiple individuals of each type. It is a feeding frenzy with usually-shy birds landing almost at your feet.

Most of the antbirds, particularly those that forage with army ants, are shy, and very difficult to see. Many have habits more like forest rodents, keeping quiet and close to the ground. All of them need large areas of mature forest. Despite more than twenty previous trips to the tropics, whether due to bad luck, being with too many other birders such that the birds were frightened, or being in the wrong location, I had never watched an antswarm. I still had never seen two of Costa Rica’s antswarm obligates, and had only fleeting glimpses of others. I wanted to see the new birds. I wanted long and satisfying views of the others. I wanted to experience this phenomenon that I had read and heard about for so many years.

We did find two small antswarms at the Las Cruces Biological Station. I saw the two birds I had never seen before, but I wasn't satisfied. There were not enough species or individuals. The birds were still shy, and sort of dropped in and out. “Is that all there is?” I wondered.

Two weeks later, at a more remote location, I finally realized my dream of encountering a king sized, fully-raucous, wildly-entertaining antswarm. I heard the feeding call of a Bicolored Antbird. I looked about and saw army ants all over the trail. I found a nice vantage point next to a tree and waited. I didn't wait long. Soon an Ocellated Antbird appeared, and then another.

(Ocellated Antbird by Pat O'Donnell. Check out Pat's blog to plan your Costa Rica trip: http://birdingcraft.com/wordpress/)

Next a Ruddy Woodcreeper dove in, snatched a large insect, and clung to a nearby stem. Next came two more Ruddy Woodcreepers, two more kinds of antbirds, and three more species of Woodcreepers. Eventually I tallied 12 bird species. I watched the spectacle for more than an hour. I have been fortunate to have had many noteworthy wildlife experiences. This one was as good as any!

My wife and I make a good pair. We both have emotional reactions to ants!

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to audubongv@gmail.com. [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!]
 

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