Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Eye of the Beholder

Many thanks to John E.L. Tenney and Eric Wojciechowski for graciously providing content for this blog post. Their contributions are most appreciated.

"What do you see?" reads the cover of The Mothman Prophecies, John Keel's cornerstone work adorned with a Rorschachian ink blot. It is a relevant question. 

When I was a child my elementary school class would take field trips to a planetarium. My favorite part of the program was when they'd discuss UFOs. I recall they would show these glowing, saucer-shaped lights traversing the starry heavens of the planetarium ceiling. We were then told how the glowing images represented what people were describing in select UFO reports. They said a plausible explanation for some of the reports was birds reflecting the lights of the cities below.

"Who the hell could mistake a bird for a flying saucer?" I used to wonder to myself. "Oh, my bad, I thought it was a star cruiser but it was just a goose..."

I was pretty sure this bird explanation was in league with arbitrary bedtimes and cartoons about eating spinach to instantaneously develop Popeye muscles. Then I finally saw it myself.

Decades later I was walking across a parking lot at night. Suddenly, I saw a saucer-shaped glowing light. It appeared to be speeding all the way from one side of the sky to the other. Surprised, I stopped in my tracks. I soon realized I had mistaken a bird for a flying saucer!

As the rather run of the mill bird continued its journey, I could clearly see what it was. The 'flying saucer' morphed into a bird as the reflection faded, all within seconds. 

Light was reflecting off the bird's breast and appeared to me to be disc-shaped and much further away. I found it curious that I reflexively suspected it to be a speedy craft at high altitude. 

I was left to wonder what I might have thought the bird was if I wasn't so familiar with UFO lore. It seems reasonable to suspect people knowledgeable about birds, and who spend a lot of time looking at images of them flying at night (as compared to images of UFOs), would have thought it was a bird. 

If to a hammer everything is a nail, then to a UFO enthusiast is every light in the sky a flying saucer? Perhaps some of us more than others, but maybe a lot of that depends on how well we educate ourselves. 

I'm just glad I saw what the bird actually was so I didn't spend years of my life looking for a conclusive explanation that would never have been found. It makes me wonder how many cases are destined to remain unsolved under similar circumstances.

This is not to suggest that identifiable flying objects (IFOs) necessarily account for all UFO sightings. There are many different explanations for the many different reports, however extraordinary or mundane they may each one day prove to be.

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One such person knowledgeable about birds flying at night is longtime Fortean, author, and speaker, John E.L. Tenney. At my request he explained: 

Throughout the earlier 1990's during my lectures on UFO phenomena, I would often present videos and photos to my audiences which showed strange flashing lights in the sky and curious formations moving swiftly through the clouds at sunset. Without any explanation of what the images actually were, I would allow the crowd to speculate on what they thought they were seeing. In many instances the audience would argue over whether or not the "UFOs" were luminescent or simply reflective of existing light. No matter what they thought about the silvery, flashing disks, the majority believed these photos and images were proof of unidentified flying saucers.
Unfortunately, the photos and videos I provided were of migrating birds, ducks mostly. Ducks can attain a speed of over 50 mph and have been known to fly at altitudes above 1000 feet. In one instance a duck collided with a plane over Nevada at 21,000 feet. The video and photos I had shown were before the popularization and consumer accessibility of "night vision" cameras, so this added in some instances to the mysterious effect. The reality though was that I had just spoken for over an hour on the topic of UFO phenomena and attendees had UFOs on their minds, and so no matter what I showed them they saw what they wanted to see. Even after my explanation of the videos, there were some who refused to believe me.

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One evening in Florida I was sitting alone in a car. As I sat gazing across the way, thinking about this and that, I suddenly saw, several feet away, what I believe to have been a large tropical bird briefly fly within an area illuminated by a streetlight. It created a rather striking momentary optical illusion, as nothing was there, then the wood stork-like creature was there, then it was gone. It was as if it just popped in and out of existence. 

Wood storks often stand well over three feet high
with a wing span in excess of five feet
To add to the surreal effect, it was not a graceful snapshot; the large bird was in a rather awkward position of spreading wings, getting legs situated and such. To my untrained eye, it kind of looked somewhat unnatural and contorted during that brief instant of its ascent or landing, at least as compared to seeing wood storks fly across the sky or stroll around the yard in broad daylight.

I immediately realized the area outside the illumination of the streetlight was simply too dark for me to see the bird, but the sight nonetheless had a disorienting effect. We're of course typically not consciously aware we can't see what's in the dark; we tend to just assume nothing is there.

The experience subsequently made it much easier for me to envision how barn owls and large nocturnal birds might be misidentified and give rise to stories of levitating aliens and mysterious winged creatures of the night. This might particularly be the case if light angles and shadows have much to do with it.

As suggested earlier, the intent of this post is not to negate all UFO reports, but to offer readers some perspectives that arguably get less airtime than they should. That stated, I will add that as I mulled this all over, it seemed rather apparent to me that in cases where witnesses of the same UFO sighting provide curiously different descriptions of the same object, they may simply have seen an optical illusion from differing perspectives. 

Such cases are often considered intriguing, due in part to investigators suspecting the flying objects possess a paranormal quality or intelligence which induces subjective perceptions in observers. Sometimes investigators suspect the undefined objects are interacting in personalized ways with the witnesses, thus the conflicting descriptions of the same UFO. Perhaps in at least some instances these cases may be better explained by light reflections and optical illusions, combined with the usual caveats of witness testimonies and subjectivity. 

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A non-UFO but nonetheless intriguing report in which the witnesses fascinatingly shared the same bizarre illusion and short-lived interpretation comes to us from Eric Wojciechowski. He is a speaker on UFO topics, an author, and contributes articles to several publications. Eric explained for us in a recent email:
In the summer of 2011, I took my family to Atlanta, Michigan. They'd never been but it's where I spent my summer vacations as a kid and since I now had children of my own, I wanted to show them the place, especially the lake I fished, the Atlanta Pond (as the Department of Natural Resources refers to it). My brother and his family joined us as well.
One of the days, we took a trip to Mackinaw and on the way back, I was driving and my brother was in the passenger seat. It was probably around 7pm. As I'm driving, I notice in the intersection up ahead, a rhinoceros was in the intersection, making a left hand turn. As I was about to draw attention to it, the illusion broke and it wasn't a rhino but a car, making a left hand turn. It was a trick of sunlight and shadow.
However, just as my mind registered the error and I saved myself from saying anything embarrassing, my brother took off his sunglasses and said, "What the hell?"
I said, "Did you see the rhinoceros too?"
And as I said it, he also registered it was just a car and we both had a laugh about it.
Somehow, the sun and shadow at that very moment made the car ahead look like a rhinoceros. I have no idea how that happened but we still laugh about it today. 


  1. Great article.
    I have seen birds up really high in daylight..they looked like discs..
    Chased a square looking light in south australian desert at merged into a truck headlight.It was "just" light refraction..Not sure how a white truck headlight turned cherry red .In the same location.the locals reported seeing a large ufo rising several times in a row at dusk..what a surprise to see Venus..had a report from mate visited the was the star field moving as it does..the people there appeared to have thought the stars are in fixed positions all night.I have visited an interesting farm a few times now..and there is some weird light phenomena on it.But, due to the exposure of real phenomena, the farmers interpret ALL lights as being anomalous.We even used a GPS to fix the exact position of a safety beacon on a light.Matched the pulse rate/elevation. and direction would have none of it.They even said "look the light is moving"...its a light in a sea of darkness..of course it looks like it is moving..

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article, Mike. Thanks!

      As you're saying, and as I wrote this, I couldn't help but wonder how many high profile cases with mundane explanations will never be solved because it's simply not possible at this time to prove something like natural wildlife and/or light reflections were involved. Even worse, the merit of some cases is sometimes argued based on how many years they have defied conclusive explanations. Maybe in at least some instances that's just because the bird flew away...

    2. Well, light-reflecting birds and planes have been suggested as explanations since the earliest days of the "modern" ufo era. Even Ken Arnold's sighting was suggested to be light reflecting off of Pelicans. I too have witnessed birds flying in the daylight (particularly sea gulls) which appear as discs, but one can identify them pretty quickly.

      It would seem though that this is something that actually could be verified in regards to some sightings. For instance, in the 70+ years since the Arnold sighting no other pilot has reported the same phenemonah when flying around that area of Washington. Probability would suggest that of the thousands of flights which have occurred around Mount Rainer in the month of June, other pilots should have reported seeing the same thing as Arnold, at least if it were Birds (or even snow drifts or what have you). Of course, perhaps they have and just havent said anything; but it is intriguing, regardless.

  2. A few years ago I thought I had spotted a legitimate UFO research group.

    But alas, upon review, I had been fooled by an obscure punk rocker who was (is) merely promoting his new band under false pretenses.

    1. UFO research groups: the new lens flare. : )