Tragic end for a mega-rare marsh harrier

Tragic end for a mega-rare marsh harrier

Every case of a bird being hit by a plane is sad, but this story is particularly shocking.

On November 19, 2022, a United Airlines flight from Chicago was on final approach to Newark International Airport in New Jersey at 3:45 p.m. when it struck a bird approximately 9 nautical miles from the runway, about 3,000 feet above the ground.

The plane was undamaged, and after it landed some feathers and other remains of the bird (called “snarge”) were collected and sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Laboratory.

The lab, which tests thousands of such samples from commercial and military aircraft each year, later determined the bird to be a Western Marsh Harrier (also known as the Eurasian Marsh Harrier, Circus aeruginosus).

The raptor is a widespread species in Europe, Africa and Asia, and it is considered a megararity in North America. One individual was spotted in December 1994 at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge on the Virginia coast. Since then, the species has appeared on a few Caribbean islands and, in 2015, in Bermuda.

In late August 2022, the North American continent recorded its second Marsh Harrier when an individual was found near the central coast of Maine. After a few days in the area, the bird was not seen again.

Western Marsh Harrier. Photo by Dave DeReamus

Then, on November 8, in northern New Jersey, birder Chuck Hantis saw and photographed a Marsh Harrier in the Troy Meadows Natural Area, about 350 miles southwest of the Maine sighting. Over the next few days, several birdwatchers spotted the Hen Harrier at Troy Meadows, until November 12, when it was last reported on eBird. (Ornithologist Jeff Ellerbusch recounts the sequence of sightings on this eBird checklist.) The bird was widely believed to be the same one seen in Maine.

Troy Meadows is located approximately 15 miles northwest of Newark International. Tragically, the bird hit by United’s plane was almost certainly the same marsh harrier.

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The Federal Aviation Administration’s Wildlife Strike Database confirmed that the bird had been identified “by both DNA and entire feathers.” The FAA report adds that “it was [a] B-737 aircraft that flies only in the United States. Thus, all data indicates that this strike occurred on the approach to Newark.

Since news of the marsh harrier’s identity and death broke on Jan. 30, several birders have mourned the situation on social media and in comments on eBird. Ornithologist Anthony Ferino, who saw the bird on November 9, wrote on eBird: “A truly sad ending to an astonishingly rare story that seemed to have the potential to stick around North America for years, stamping his passport in who-knows-how many different states. The impact occurred at an altitude of about 3,000 feet, which is indicative of the high-flying behavior of this bird mentioned in my notes.

And Dave DeReamus, a birdwatcher from Pennsylvania who also saw the bird on November 9 and whose photos illustrate this story, wrote on his blog:

“The bird’s latest eBird report is the 12th, so this rarity has been chasing this area for at least a week and a half. The odds of that happening to this particular bird are astronomical. It’s a very sad ending for a bird that survived a journey from another continent, only to finally meet its demise as it soared through the skies of New Jersey.

Learn more about the Smithsonian’s Feather Identification Lab