Costa Rica is home to a wide variety of raptor species but most are scarce or rare birds of forested habitats. Not so for the Gray Hawk. This tropical relative of the Red-shouldered Hawk is one of our more common raptors, in many places, the de-facto urban hawk.
Go birding in remnant green space or edge habitats in many parts of Costa Rica and it won’t take long to see a Gray Hawk. One or two might soar high overhead or you might glimpse a bird as it moves from one patch of trees to the next. Quick flaps and a glide, you might be reminded of a chunky Accipiter. It often calls, listen for its clear whistled song.
You won’t see them inside rainforest or cloud forest but bird the edges and semi-open habitats and a Gray Hawk will eventually appear. Its also one of the more regular raptors of roadside wires (along with the rightly named Roadside Hawk). These small-medium raptors persists because they don’t require much more than habitat with enough small lizards, birds, and other creatures to feed on, large trees for nesting, and nobody shooting them. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons they occur in much of Costa Rica’s Central Valley?
From what I have seen in the riparian zone out back and while birding other bits of rich remnant green space in the Central Valley, I figure a Gray Hawk’s day in Costa Rica goes somewhat like this.
As its gets light outside, a Gray Hawk watches for movement from its curtain of leaves. Will a lizard creep into view? Has some large katydid neglected to find cover in time? Maybe a small bird looks tired or a bit too slow. There are more of those more catchable birds when the vireos and kingbirds are moving through, that’s the best time to catch them but a bird never knows, hungry raptors have to be ready to literally seize any opportunity.
Seeing nothing of promise, the adult Gray Hawk flies to its next hidden perch. A Tropical Kingbird twitters and flies after it, kiskadees calls and other birds give the alarm. They would have to be much slower to catch but they aren’t taking any chances. A few Brown Jays pick up the alarm and join in with their own raucous calls. Big enough to intimidate, the Gray Hawk races to find cover before the big, long-tailed birds can bother it. The hawk is in luck, the jays also need to find breakfast and so they move on. Not that they could directly hurt the hawk but they could certainly scare away prey and give the raptor more stress than it needs.
Watching from its new perch, it scans the sunny edge of a large patch of bamboo. The bamboo was imported from Asia but it can still host something to eat. This fine morning, it looks like breakfast may take the form of a Spiny Lizard. The lizard didn’twant to leave cover but it didn’t have much of a choice. It needed that sunny spot, needed to recharge its cold blooded bio batteries so it could find something to eat and run from being eaten. All it could hope was that its coloration would keep it hidden. Unfortunately for the lizard, the bright sun was lighting it up, turning it into an unwritten sign that said, “Free Meal Here!”.
The hawk saw that sign and didn’t hesitate to make its move. With straight, steady flight, the bird flew in and thrust its legs out. Still too cold to react, the lizard was caught and pierced with talons. It died while carried away to a neaby perch; where the hawk enjoyed its breakfast.
After resting, rising warm air encouraged the Gray Hawk to take flight and soar high above its territory. It could see a green sliver among a mosaic of fields and rocky looking housing. Once in a while, it flew over that rocky stuff but not that often, there wasn’t usually much to catch there. The green thread ran up to a larger area of trees but that place was already taken by a pair of Gray Hawk who objected to its presence. At least this patch of green, this bit of area with food could sustain it, at least for now.
High above it flew and called in the warm skies, always hoping to find a mate. No other Gray Hawk called back on this day but it might eventually happen. In the meantime, the raptor flew back down to a favored patch of tall Eucalyptus. It was another tree that would have been foreign to the hawk just 200 years ago but not anymore. They made a fine perch, an excellent vantage point to watch for unwary birds, lizards, and rodents.
Watching from the tall Australian trees, the Gray Hawk could see large noisy things moving dust, throwing the dirt into the air. It was a spot that used to have some trees and bruchh, a place where it had caught food, where bobwhites and Blue Grosbaks had sang. The area had given it a little extra breathing room. Not any more. It was being changed to more of those rocky things and it was bereft of green.
Looking in the other direction, the hawk noticed a small bird on the ground, an Inca Dove that fluttered wrong. Automatically noting a bird that might be in trouble, something that could be easy to catch, the hawk’s attention was immediately focused on the dove. It readied itself for an attack.
This was automatic, it needed to eat and if it didn’t catch it, something else would, maybe one of the Short-tailed Hawks that also hunted this area. As the dove continued to flutter, the Gray Hawk made a quick, straight lfight at it and easily caught it with its sharp talons. It wasn’t every day the hawk caught a dove. This one had some sort of problem. Maybe it was too old, maybe sick, either way, nature doesn’t hold any place for the weak. The hawk almost never caught a dove but this day, this bird was an easy invitation and the hawk gladly came to dinner.
After eating the dove, the lesser light of the late afternoon, the noisy chattering of Crimson-fronted Parakeets flying to roost reminded the raptor that it was time to do the same. The Gray Hawk moved back to the shady tree where it had began the day and readied itself for night. This came quickly, it always does in tropical latitudes. Bats eventually chittered and a Mottled Owl barked but the day raptor didn’t pay them any attention, it was already asleep.