Every incidence of a bird being hit by an aircraft is sad, but this story is particularly shocking.
On November 19, 2022, a United Airlines flight from Chicago was on its final approach to Newark International Airport in New Jersey at 3:45 p.m. when it hit a bird about 9 nautical miles from the runway at about 3,000 feet above ground.
The plane was not damaged, and after it landed, some feathers and other remains of the bird (known as “snarge”) were collected and sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab.
The lab, which tests thousands of such samples annually from commercial and military airplanes, later determined that the bird was a Western Marsh Harrier (also known as Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Circus aeruginosus).
The raptor is a widespread species throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, and it’s considered a mega-rarity in North America. One individual was spotted in December 1994 at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, on the coast of Virginia. Since then, the species has turned up on a few Caribbean islands and, in 2015, on Bermuda.
In late August 2022, the North American mainland recorded its second ever Western Marsh Harrier when an individual was found near the coast of central Maine. After a couple of days in the area, the bird was not seen again.
Then on November 8 in northern New Jersey, birder Chuck Hantis saw and photographed a Western Marsh Harrier at Troy Meadows Natural Area, roughly 350 miles southwest of the Maine sighting. Over the next few days, several birders saw the harrier at Troy Meadows, until November 12, when it was last reported on eBird. (Birder Jeff Ellerbusch recounts the sequence of sightings on this eBird checklist.) The bird was widely believed to be the same bird that was seen in Maine.
Troy Meadows is located about 15 miles northwest of Newark International. Tragically, the bird hit by the United plane was almost certainly the same marsh harrier.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s Wildlife Strike Database confirmed that the bird was identified “by both DNA and whole feathers.” The FAA report adds that “this was [a] B-737 aircraft that only flies in USA. Thus, all data indicate this strike occurred on approach to” Newark.
Since the news of the marsh-harrier’s identity and death broke on January 30, several birders mourned the situation on social media and in comments on eBird. Birder Anthony Ferino, who saw the bird on November 9, wrote on eBird: “A really sad ending to the story of an amazing rarity that seemed like it had potential to remain in North America for years, stamping its passport in who-knows-how-many different states. The strike occurred at an altitude of around 3,000 feet, a testament to this bird’s high-soaring behavior mentioned in my notes.”
And Dave DeReamus, a Pennsylvania birder who also saw the bird on November 9 and whose photos illustrate this story, wrote on his blog:
“The last eBird report of the bird is listed as the 12th, so this rarity was hunting that area for at least a week-and-a-half. The odds of this happening to this particular bird are astronomical. It’s a very sad ending to a bird that survived a trip from another continent, only to meet its demise while soaring in the New Jersey sky.”
Read about the Smithsonian Feather Identification Lab
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