Ornate Hawk Eagle

by: Craig Thompson

Photo provided by: Ellen Gennrich
Photo taken by: Nito Paniagua

There’s a new sheriff in town and this one has style. Sporting a black, spiky crest, zebra-striped legs and rich rufous trim, the Ornate Hawk Eagle is one of the American tropics most beautiful raptors. When seen standing, members of this genus (Spizaetus) appear to be wearing finely knit socks, an image conveyed by dense feathers running the length of their legs. But don’t be fooled by fancy plumage. This bird plays hardball.

Accomplished at the art of ambush, “Ornates” perch silently in the forest, scanning for prey. Their distinctive plumage enables them to disappear in the foliage. Unsuspecting quarry are attacked on the ground or snatched off branches with astonishing speed. Short, broad wings (for an eagle) and a long tail provide exceptional maneuverability in deep forest. No-nonsense talons make quick work of the unwary, mostly medium-to-large birds like parrots, toucans and curassows. There is even a record of an Ornate bagging a Black Vulture. On occasion, small mammals like agoutis and squirrel monkeys end up on the menu. So too the occasional snake or lizard.

Ornate Hawk Eagles are long-lived and slow to reproduce. Large stick nests constructed high in the forest canopy are the recipient of a single egg. Juvenal hawk eagles fledge after three months in the nest, but require an additional nine months of parental care before they’re ready to go solo. So great are the demands of parenthood, Ornates nest every other year, providing a much needed respite between bouts of reproduction.

A denizen of large tracts of primary forest, the Ornate Hawk-Eagle has become increasingly rare throughout its Latin American range. The culprits? Loss of forest and persecution by hunters. It has disappeared entirely from deforested areas of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and El Salvador and is diminished throughout the remainder of its range, including Costa Rica.

This adult Ornate was photographed along the Rio Piro in March 2013 by a group of conservation birders based at Osa Conservation’s Piro Biological Station. It flushed during an early morning encounter, but no one, including bird guide Nito Paniagua, could identify it during the tantalizing, but fleeting glimpse. Much to everyone’s delight, it quietly circled back and perched in a tall tree along the river, offering point blank views. Trip participant Ellen Gennrich summed up the group’s reaction. “What a treat it was to get such a good look at this rare bird!  Seeing the elaborately-adorned Ornate Hawk-eagle reminded us of why we MUST protect the Osa Peninsula.”

This eagle’s prospects are brighter due to Osa Conservation’s grassroots conservation efforts. By working to safeguard the peninsula’s forests and waters, Osa Conservation is ensuring a vibrant future for all of the Osa’s residents, wild and otherwise.


Interested in experiencing the best of the Osa’s magnificent birds and wildlife? Contact Craig Thompson – [email protected] – to learn more about future conservation birding opportunities.



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