Army Ants and Antbirds

We were bumping down the road in the pick-up when suddenly Domi stomped on the brakes, put the truck in park, and  jumped out of the driver’s seat.

“ARMY ANTS!” he exclaimed in an excited voice, quickly pulling down the ladder to let our group climb down out of the back of the pick-up.

The Canopy Bower birding mobile

The Canopy Bower birding mobile

Backing up
I was in Panama City. I had arrived the evening before to facilitate a shorebird conservation planning workshop later in the week and had one morning free before the workshop started. What’s a birder with spare morning to do? I got in touch with my friend Carlos Bethancourt at Canopy Tower and asked for recommendations for a bird guide for the morning.

Jennie and Carlos

Jennie and Carlos

Carlos, true to his kind nature, arranged for a driver to pick me up at my hotel in the city before the crack of dawn and drive me the 45 minutes out to Canopy Tower. After a quick breakfast with some of the guests, Carlos introduced me to Domiciano “Domi” Alveo, another Canopy Tower guide, who let me join his field trip to Camino del Oleoducto: the world famous Pipeline Road.

The world famous Canopy Tower

The world famous Canopy Tower

Pipeline Road

Pipeline Road

Back at the ant swarm
We followed Domi’s lead and tuck our pantlegs into our socks against the ants. We walked down the road about fifteen feet and were immediately in the middle of it. Ants were swarming on the road and in the forest on either side. Birds were everywhere, moving around so much that Domi could barely point them out before they hopped away in search of more ants.

Domiciano "Domi" Alveo

Domiciano “Domi” Alveo

We stepped off of the road into the trees, finding places to stand where the ants weren’t bothered by our presence. (Remarkably, I don’t remember anyone having to do much more than gently brush an exploratory ant or two off of his or her leg).

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Bicolored Antbird

We watch the action for a few minutes and then Domi excitedly gestures for us all to line up behind him, directing us to a pair of birds foraging in the understory. He points out the blue skin around the eyes and sure enough: it is a pair of Ocellated Antbirds. They continue to feed, oblivious to the seven people standing not six feet away staring at them through binoculars.

Ocellated Antbird with a pesky twig in front of its face.

Ocellated Antbird with a pesky twig in front of its face.

A small bird with a big head flew in. I pointed it out to Domi, who excitedly identified it: White-whiskered Puffbird. It flew off before I could take a picture, but not before the whole group got a nice look. Plain-brown Woodcreeper. Northern Barred-Woodcreeper. Cocoa Woodcreeper. Gray-headed Tanagers everywhere. A juvenile Barred Forest Falcon buzzed the group, landed for a minute on a branch, and took off again.

Howler monkey!

Howler monkey!

The morning was packed with lifers, amazing views of all kinds of wildlife, and the kind of connections you can only make with other birders—I was a stranger to the other five people on the trip, but within about twenty minutes we’d figured out that I’d gone to the same college as one of them (although fifteen years apart) and that I’d lived in the same part of Colorado as another. The birding world can be small, in hugely fun ways.

We continued birding for the next few hours, even making a quick stop on the way back to Canopy Tower for a look at Panama’s first record of White-faced Ibis which had been hanging around for a week or so. After lunch with the group, my driver was waiting to whisk me back to my hotel, where I’d spend the next four days leading biologists from Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Canada, and the United States in the development of a conservation plan for shorebirds from Alaska to Chile. That was exciting, too (although in a very different way than seeing a Brownish Twistwing or a Southern Bentbill, both of which we spotted along Pipeline Road.)

What’s the best adventure you’ve had birding with limited time?