Creepy Crawlies 3: Fiends From Hell

“The ants go marching one by one….”

Actually, they don’t. At least not when you’re talking about army ants, or driver ants, as they’re sometimes called. What they do is form marching “columns” that vary from a few ants in width to a wave pouring over everything in their path.

Until fairly recently, everything I knew about army ants came from two childhood sources: a 1938 short story titled “Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson, and a children’s book, Alonzo and the Army of Ants, written by Murray Goodwin in 1966. In both books, the ants are portrayed as a horrifying, unstoppable force of nature:

“They’re not creatures you can fight—they’re an elemental—an ‘act of God!’ Ten miles long, two miles wide—ants, nothing but ants! And every single one of them a fiend from hell; before you can spit three times they’ll eat a full-grown buffalo to the bones. I tell you if you don’t clear out at once, there’ll be nothing left of you but a skeleton picked as clean as your own plantation.” [“Leiningen Versus the Ants”]

What better to titillate the fertile imagination of a child? Naturally, I was fascinated and frightened in equal measure.

When I began travelling to the tropics as an adult, I somehow believed my chances of seeing these fearsome creatures were about the same as running into a tiger. I mean, if they were that dangerous, surely someone would have got them under control or something. Or there would be fences. Or warnings. In Africa, you see signs about how to act around elephants and hippos. In Australia, there are crocodile warnings. Nowhere do you see signs warnings about army ants.

However, somewhere in my readings about birds, I learned that there are certain species of birds that follow ant armies for a very particular reason.

“During their hunt, many surface-raiding army ants are accompanied by various birds…which devour the insects that are flushed out by the ants, a behavior known as kleptoparasitism.[1]

Sneaky buggers, eh? But they get their just deserts, because they in turn become dessert for bigger birds—raptors—who also follow the swarms and prey on them.[2]

What this all boils down to is a bird photographer’s dream: a bunch of birds that are too absorbed in lunch to pay much mind to large lenses being poked at them:

“While focused on feeding on these invertebrates, birds at army-ant swarms typically allow very close approach by people—within 1 or 2 meters in many cases—often providing the best opportunities to see [and photograph] many of these species.”

In my case, I did things backwards (as is so often the case), stopping by the roadside in Costa Rica to photograph a roadside hawk (yes, that’s its actual name). After shooting from the car window, I thought I’d try getting out and moving a bit closer, as the hawk seemed absorbed in watching something and disinclined to move. I opened the car door silently and ever-so-slowly reached my foot toward the ground, always keeping my eyes on the bird. Until something moving below me caught my attention. I glanced down and realized we had stopped the car in the middle of an army ant swarm.

Roadside hawk accompanying army ant swarm.

Not knowing how many beloved ant citizens we had crushed with our metallic behemoth or what gruesome revenge their comrades would wreak upon us—Were they even at that moment scaling the walls of the engine compartment, breaching the flimsy barriers that stood between the ravening horde and our shrinking flesh, soon to pour forth with gigantic clacking mandibles from vents and other car orifices?—we elected to retreat to a safe distance.

That was a small swarm, just a few square metres in size. And we didn’t really see the kleptoparasites in action that day. Perhaps the presence of the hawk kept the smaller birds in hiding. Our next army ant encounter, however, provided a spectacular example.

We were staying at a small jungle lodge in the Yucatan. There were few guests, just a couple of the cabanas were occupied and the staff were usually nowhere to be found. As we returned to our hut after a walk, we spotted a column of ants moving along the main driveway. This group was about a metre in width and extended back into the jungle farther than we could see. Intrigued, we followed the ants as they marched forward.

They moved along steadily, searching everything in their path methodically and efficiently to find food. They swarmed up each twig of every bush and plant to flush out whatever was there. We could see spiders, grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects frantically leaping or running to escape. Some made it, others were tackled by the ants and quickly disappeared under the onslaught. You could actually hear the rustling of the vegetation as the ants moved through. It was mesmerizing and extremely creepy at the same time.

We began to see the small birds that accompanied the column. They hung in the bushes just off the ground, keeping close watch on the progress of the army. The insects that managed to elude the ants were often snapped up by the birds instead.

I was able to approach as close as I dared to take photos. The antbirds ignored me and the ants seemed to have little interest in us.

Soon the column entered the courtyard in front of the reception office, an open building in the tropical style. There was no one inside. As the ants fanned out to search the clearing, we realized they were also going inside the building. I wondered if this was unusual and if we should tell someone, but we hadn’t seen any staff members for quite some time.

Our main concern was to avoid being encircled ourselves. We figured we could easily outrun the army as long as we had at least one clear path, but didn’t fancy putting our feet down in the midst of those soldiers. We watched and waited as long as possible, with the ants around us on three sides getting ever closer, then we took our leave.

Later, we talked to the manager and he shrugged the whole thing off. The ant armies came through the property regularly. They didn’t bother people. As for them storming the reception building, he said, that happened a lot and was of no concern. In fact, he welcomed the conquering army, because the ants swept in, searched the building thoroughly and hunted down any resident bugs, and then quickly left without disturbing anything else. Sure enough, when we returned to the clearing, there was no trace of the column and no ants in the building.

The fearsome army ant: just a cleaning brigade on the move. If Leiningen only knew.


[1] An excellent Scrabble word.

[2] Apparently, there is no existing term to describe raptors that feast on army ant kleptoparasites, so this is your opportunity to coin a word. Uberkleptoparasites?

Knot Spots: Update on Vigia Chico Road for Birders

Spotted: Quintana Roo, Mexico

Although it’s now 20 years old, Steve Howell’s Where to Watch Birds in Mexico is still the go-to guide for travelling birders in that country, but with the information that dated, readers need to take it with a grain of salt and a spirit of adventure.

Setting out to find the well-known Vigia Chico road that Howell profiles in his book, we consulted a more recent online source for updates and managed to find the location. The paved road goes a bit farther now, but it still turns into rutted hardpan/mud pretty quickly.

We didn’t see a lot of birds, but I put that down to arriving mid-morning.

However, two things birders should note about this famous spot:

1. The road is nearly impassable to regular cars with normal clearance. There are almost continuous deep gullies and holes with large rocks sticking up. We bottomed out over and over until we gave up at around km 4. So either bring a high-clearance vehicle or plan to walk.

2. I was standing at roadside, camera in hand, when a local came chugging up on a motorcycle. I called out Buenos dios as I do to everyone who passes, but instead of answering with a smile and going on, he stopped and approached us.

He let out a torrent of Spanish, from which I gathered he was saying photography on the road was prohibited. But somehow, if I paid a “fee” I could take my photos.

Knowing it is a public road, but not wanting to argue, I just said, Photographs are prohibited? Okay, no photographs. And I put my camera away. Of course, I got another flood of Spanish explaining about the fee, but I simply stuck to I understand, no photographs.

After seeing we were not going to pay, he climbed on his bike and roared away.

So I just wanted to warn other birders that this con artist has gotten wise to birders who want to use that road.

I’d also be very curious to know if anyone else has run into this?

Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?