An inhabitant of tropical forest, primarily below 1800 m, Ornate Hawk-Eagle has a broad range throughout much of the Neotropics. Dependent on large tracts of forest, it generally is uncommon or rare wherever it occurs.
It reaches its northern limit in northeastern Mexico, occurring on the forested slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental as far north as southwestern Tamaulipas. It occurs south more or less continuously, dependent on tracts of forest of sufficient size, to the Yucatan Peninsula and throughout Central America. Its Central American distribution tends to be spotty and local, and Wetmore (1965), Ridgely and Gwynne (1989), and Stiles and Skutch (1989) all described it as uncommon. Its status in west Mexico is unclear; there have been at least seven records from mountains of Jalisco (2) and Colima (5) (Aranda et al. 2009, Schaldach 1963, 1969, Webb and Howell 1993), and Howell and Webb (1995) map this area in the species’ regular range. However, Aranda et al. (2009) note that it is probably now extirpated from Colima. Isolated records from the states of Guerrero (Webb and Howell 1993) and Nayarit (López et al. 2004) could pertain to wandering individuals. Nesting remains unconfirmed in west Mexico, and several of the above records pertain to immatures, which could be wandering individuals. In general, it is scarcer on the drier Pacific slope of Central America, and it is extremely local and rarely reported in El Salvador (Howell and Webb 1995). In Panama, it occurs primarily on the Caribbean slope, in the more humid areas of the Pacific slope, and on Coiba Island; it is especially scarce in the Canal Zone and on the Azuero Peninsula, where first found in 1982 along the Río Pavo and Río Portobelo drainages (Ridgely and Gwynne 1989).
In South America, the distribution is split by the spine of the Andes. The northern subspecies continues south from North America and occurs on the Pacific slope of western Colombia and western Ecuador south to El Oro. The nominate subspecies inhabits lowland forest east of the Andes, occurring from eastern Colombia and Venezuela south through the Amazon Basin to southern Brazil, northern Argentina, and Bolivia, and west to eastern Ecuador and eastern Peru. It is uncommon but widespread in hill forests of both Trinidad and Tobago (ffrench 1991).
Not thought to disperse far out of range and only a few records suggest long-distance dispersal or vagrancy; isolated records from some sites in western Ecuador (Ridgely and Greenfield 2001a), and the above records from west Mexico, may pertain to small populations that are rarely detected or to wandering individuals. However, several such records (e.g., Nayarit and Jalisco, Mexico) pertain to immatures which may be the age class likely to disperse away from breeding areas. A study of the unrelated (see Systematics) Javan Hawk-Eagle (Nisaetus bartelsi) found that adults did not disperse out of habitat, but that immatures were regularly seen in marginally appropriate habitat, suggesting that this age class goes through a period of dispersal and is most likely to wander away from the normal range (Nijban and van Balen 2003). Ornate Hawk-Eagle is an ecological equivalent of Javan Hawk-Eagle, and it is probable that this behavior is true in New World Spizaetus as well as Nisaetus.