UFO Spotted Near Spokane (Well, Sort Of)

So, among the many ways I’ve wasted time today, this one takes the cake: watching a bunch of very strange radar echoes in the Spokane area.

No, really, there is a fishing and hunting tie-in!

Unless it’s aliens.

Friends of the family are over in Spokane right now and this afternoon reported it was pretty wet, so naturally I went to the National Weather Service’s Spokane page for the latest forecast.

Looks like more showers overnight, guys, a break into Saturday, then the possibility of rain through the rest of the weekend.

Oh, and a chance of more UFOs.

Say what?

At the top of the Service’s site is an intriguing link I just had to hit: “Unusual Radar Echoes

How do you not click on something like that?

Especially if the World Cup’s done for the day, your mag’s gone to press, and the next one appears to be under control.

In amazement I watched and rewatched the interesting echoes, which first appear to the south and then the west of Fairchild Air Force Base.

A large blue cluster pops up then moves off over the wheatfields and pines near the Lilac City.

UNUSUAL RADAR ECHOES SEEN ON SUCCESSIVE MID-MAY DAYS SOUTH OF SPOKANE. (NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE)

Of course I had to call the Weather Service office for more information.

Hey, I might be slackin’, but I’m still a reporter.

I got Ron Miller on the line. He’s a meteorologist with the Service.

“I guess it is technically a UFO, since it’s unidentified,” he told me.

According to the narrative on his Web site, the “strange phenomenon” first appeared on the radar over a five-day period in mid-May.

This phenomenon developed each day at approximately the same time (around 4:30 a.m.) and over the same location, near the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge south of Cheney,” says the Service. “Each day the phenomenon seemed to fan out with the prevailing low-level winds and disperse by 5 am.”

The blob — which was several thousand feet thick and miles wide — arose from the area of Long Lake then headed northwest the first three days, then east and northeast the last two.

After cold weather hit the area, the blob disappeared, but then on June 6, 7 and 8, came back, again going with prevailing winds.

Nothing on June 9, but early the morning of June 10, it switched locations and originated near Reardan.

So, Ron, what the hell is really going on?

“It’s either birds or bugs,” he says, adding, “or something else.”

Bugs seems unlikely, unless all that fertilizer the farmers use has triggered the world’s hugest mayfly hatch and thoroughly messed with their circadian rhythms.

So I called up the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge.

AW: “Hey, was there a huge-ass flock of birds at the refuge back in May?”

Jason, budget tech unfortunate enough to pick up the line when I called: “That’s what we’re thinking. Geese or ducks. The spring migration when they’re moving through — I’m not a radar expert, but it’s the only thing I can figure.”

So back to radar expert Ron at the Weather Service.

He points out that the echoes always arise around sunrise, always go with the prevailing winds, then disperse and disappear.

“Is this new this year, or have we just not noticed it?” he asked rhetorically. “We don’t know, but nobody’s really noticed.”

Well, nobody’s noticed it near Spokane.

Radar watchers around the country have, though.

If you search the Weather Service’s Web site for “bird radar,” you’ll get a few echoes.

According to a piece put together by the Green Bay office, what we saw near Spokane at sunrise earlier this winter, err, spring, looks a lot like something called a “roost ring.”

“As the birds take flight in the morning, they often leave the ground in what is called a ‘roost ring’ — a radar signature formed as they fly into the radar’s coverage area.”

An early-rising weatherman out of the Louisville, Ky., office tromped out to the site of strange echoes he was seeing and discovered:

Just before sunrise, a large flock of birds took off from a wooded patch of land there. The exact species of bird is not known (we are not bird experts), but they congregated into a stream aloft and took off to the east and south. They may be some form of Starling based on other large flocks of birds seen recently around the Louisville area …

Then there’s this from the Jacksonville, Fla., office:

Sometimes, the radar beam intersects other objects, including birds.  When there is a high density of birds in one location, typically during bird migrations, sometimes as the birds take flight the radar beam intersects the flock.  This happened in several locations across coastal Southeast Georgia on the morning of October 25, 2009, right around sunrise.  This is a favored time for birds, particularly waterfowl, to leave their nocturnal nesting sites on bodies of water to either continue their migration or return to their favorite daytime refuges.

Interestingly, there’s this potential use of radar data for, ahem, “bird watchers” who may or may not be armed:

Many bird enthusiasts utilize radar imagery to track migration patterns. Radar imagery has also been helpful to both birds and humans regarding aviation safety. Most airport terminals use radar data to track birds as they cross flight paths to avoid collisions.

Think of it as Terrafin not for albies, but quackers — your duck hunting tip of the day.

Unless the echoes do turn out to be aliens.

Then you might want to go with buckshot.

UPDATE JUNE 21

SCRATCH THE BUCKSHOT. JUST GOT OFF THE PHONE WITH A  BIOLOGIST AT THE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE WHO WAS AT GROUND ZERO MAY 19 WHILE THE PLUME WAS OCCURRING AND HE SAW … ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

“I SAW NO BIRDS,” SAYS MARK RULE, WHO’S BEEN AT TURNBULL 18 YEARS. “I DIDN’T EVEN SEE ANY CLOUDS OF INSECTS.”

HE ALLOWS THAT IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN A HATCH OF BUGS TOO SMALL TO SEE, BUT ALSO POINTS OUT THAT WHATEVER IT WAS ROSE AS HIGH AS 5,000 FEET AND WAS A MILE WIDE.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT SORT OF INSECTS WOULD HATCH IN THAT SORT OF ABUNDANCE,” HE SAYS.

THE BLOB ALSO MOVED AGAINST PREVAILING WINDS ONE MORNING, AND RULE SAYS LOCAL BUGS STAY LOW AND CLOSE TO THE WATER.

SEEMS LIKE SWAMP GAS WOULD ALSO BE UNABLE TO FLOAT OFF AGAINST THE WIND.

“IT’S STILL A MYSTERY,” RULE NOTES.

AT THE SAME TIME THAT SPOKANE’S RADAR WAS PICKING UP ALL THAT WEIRDNESS, CLIFF MASS AT THE U.W. DID A BLOG ABOUT HOW MIGRATING BIRDS WERE BLOWING UP THE RADAR AT NIGHT.

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One Response to “UFO Spotted Near Spokane (Well, Sort Of)”

  1. Samantha Says:

    Thanks for doing a little legwork and investigation on this phenomenon! My curiosity was killing me! Birds are what first came to my mind, especially around the Wildlife Refuge. It’s nice to have a bit of confirmation! I’ll bet that was something to see…as they all took flight at once!

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