Photo by Doug Weschler
A flashy, most-desired member of the antbird family, the Ocellated Antbird is a denizen of the understory of lowland rainforest, where it exclusively follows army ant swarms. At 19 cm in length, it is a large antbird and has a very striking appearance—it is olive above with a buffy rufous breast, and its belly and back feathers are spotted and edged with buff, giving it a distinctive scaly appearance. It also has a black throat, a bushy gray crest and extensive blue facial skin. Strong, pink legs compliment this antbird’s attire. It is fairly long-tailed, long-bodied and has a proportionately small head. Males and females look the same, and juveniles are similar but lack the blue facial skin of the adults.
Finding an ant swarm in the lowland tropical rainforests of Central and South America is like winning the jackpot for a birder. A large antswarm may have dozens of individuals of several species attending, and the Ocellated Antbird is one of the prized attendees. Like other antbirds, the Ocellated Antbird feeds on insects and arthropods, and occasionally on small lizards. It is an obligate “professional” army ant follower, and seldom forages away from Eciton burchellii ant swarms. It is dominant at army ant swarms over all other attendees, and is almost always in the company of Bicolored and Spotted antbirds. Since army ants are nomadic, Ocellated Antbirds follow ant locations daily to keep tabs on them, check ant bivouacs daily and also take clues from vocalizations and group knowledge to detect new swarms. At ant swarms, the Ocellated Antbird perches on branches and lianas close to the ground, often clinging sideways on vertical stems, and moves from perch to perch looking for prey being flushed at the front of the swarm. It will fly down to the ground to snatch a prey then fly back up to a perch to eat. It often pumps its tail up and down. It visits multiple ant swarms per day, and has a feeding range up to 50 hectares. Its presence is easily identified by its song, a rising series of high-pitched piping whistles, often falling off at the end. In fact, it has a complex variation of songs, calls and vocalizations, and sometimes snaps its bill in territorial disputes.
The Ocellated Antbird has unusual social biology, with the breeding pair forming the nucleus of a family group that contains their male offspring and their mates. All work and travel together to defend their territories. Ocellated Antbirds are monogamous and mate for life. The male’s courtship display consists of a loud song as he delivers food to the female. The female will allow copulation after several courtship feedings from the male. Only recently described, the Ocellated Antbird has an open cup nest close to the ground, and raises 2 offspring per clutch. Eggs are whitish with reddish-brown spots and streaks. Both parents incubate and feed nestlings and fledglings. The young begin to forage at swarms at approximately 3-4 weeks of age, and are independent by 6 weeks. Young birds may stay in the family group for up to 6 months before dispersing. Female offspring disperse sooner than males; males often stay and breed locally in the area of the parents.
Primarily found in Central America, the Ocellated Antbird ranges from southeastern Honduras to northwestern Ecuador, where it is found in mature lowland and foothills rainforest up to 900 m. It has a strong preference for primary forest and occupies the lower levels of the forest. In Panama, it is uncommon along the entire Caribbean slope and western Pacific slope in the foothills. The Ocellated Antbird is monotypic within its genus, and there are 3 recognized subspecies. It is one of our most sought-after birds at the Canopy Family lodges.