Mystery plume radar image near Nuclear Test Site – solved

Occam’s Razor – the simplest explanation is most likely

People ask me to look into weird things all the time. Since I operate a weather business that specifically offers weather radar analysis and tracking software, I got asked to look at this image from a Daily Mail article which claimed: Weather experts baffled by mystery plume on New Mexico radar near 1945 nuclear bomb test site


An animation of the plume follows: 


I’ve seen images like this dozens of times before.

It is very likely a large swarm of birds taking off. The first two frames are the giveaway. When birds take off from the ground, they are tightly packed from their feeding/roosting area. When they go aloft, they immediately spread out, and that is exactly what we see in the first two frames of the animation. Compare it to Figure 2 in the article below and the animation below and you’ll see what I mean.


Source: NWS Doppler Radar Detects “Roost Ring” on Green Bay

A similar dramatic roost ring was documented on August 10, 2006. And there was a similar event during the Oklahoma Earthquake in Nov 2011.

Our sensitive NEXRAD WSR-88D Doppler Weather Radar network is routinely capable of picking up bird swarms like this, something we couldn’t see with older WSR-57 and WSR-74 weather radars. The NEXRAD system can also pick up bugs and bats that exhibit typical swarm behavior. We’ve all seen huge swarms of birds that blot out the sky, so of course they can be picked up by weather radar looking for rain, since birds, like humans, are mostly made up of water.

File:Rail Bridge Swarm of Starlings. - - 124591.jpg

Rail Bridge Swarm of Starlings. The normal term would be a flock of starlings but this is not so usual.Date 18 February 2006 Image: Wikipedia

It could also be insects, such as these examples:

Weather radar catches massive bug swarm

A vast swarm of bugs that covered much of the northern half of the North Island last night and this morning has been caught on the Metservice weather radar.

MetService didn’t know what it was and entomologists were puzzled.

And: A huge hatch of mayflies on radar:

188179688_75ca4f94c5[1]gg080111[1] 188179688_75ca4f94c5[1],3731197

From NOAA:

Bird Detection via Doppler Radar

Angie Enyedi (radar animation by Jason Deese)

National Weather Service Jacksonville

Doppler radar transmits pulses of energy into the atmosphere, and when this energy intersects a target, information about the density (radar reflectivity) and motion (radar velocity) of the target is transmitted back to the radar (Figure 1).  Most of the time the Doppler radar beam intersects targets composed of water vapor, including clouds, rain drops and hail stones. Meteorologists utilize this data from the radar to interrogate storms, which makes the Doppler radar a critical component of the proactive severe weather warning service that the National Weather Service (NWS) provides.

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.

The animation (Figure 2) illustrates two large and one smaller area of birds taking off, as detected by the NWS Jacksonville Doppler radar. In addition, there is a Google Map (from Google Earth) to reference for location (Figure 3).  It appears as though the southernmost flock arose from the Satilla River near Woodbine, while the other flock ascended from a tributary of Buttermilk Sound, just west of Little St. Simons Island. A third, but smaller flock, appears to have flown from the western side of Cumberland Island National Seashore.

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.

Click here for more information on the NWS Doppler Radar.


UPDATE: For those of you who say bird swarms can’t be that big…

Reader JohnS notes:

Submitted on 2014/03/19 at 4:05 pm

The playas at 34.655294° -105.900141° might be good candidates for a starting point, since they are probably wettest around this time of year. Note the line of bird choppers to the south.

REPLY: Good candidate, here is the satellite view, clearly a seasonal wetland:,-105.867004&spn=2.008193,1.972046&t=h&z=9

Windsong says: March 19, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Large flocks migrating at night quite common in my area. Some interesting images here:

I’ve reproduced the relevant parts from Cliff Mass, who writes:

Starting with the radar image (composite of all altitudes) at 7:49 PM Saturday night, we see a lot of ground-clutter returns (the lower radar beams hitting the surface mainly).

About an hour later (9:09 PM) and after sunset, things have really changed.  Lots of echoes and some very intense.  These are the birds.  Birds don’t like to migrate offshore very far and you can see that in the echoes.

 12:22 PM the echo coverage has expanded.  Lots of birds on the move

 5:37 AM there are still some birds, but the numbers are dropping.

 And after sunrise at 6:39 AM, nearly all are gone and we are back to ground clutter

The Langley radar is a Doppler radar and it gives the velocity of the targets (in this case birds) towards or away from the radar.  Here is the Doppler image at 12:46 AM.   Green indicates approaching and red and orange going away.   Clearly the birds are heading south!

Now let me show you something interesting.   Here in Seattle we have a very special type of weather radar, called a radar-wind profiler, located at the NOAA facility at Sand Point.   Instead of sweeping horizontallly, this radar has three static beams, mostly facing upwards. This radar picks up birds as well.  Take a look at an image from this radar for the 24-h ending mid-day Sunday.  The y-axis is height in meters and time is on the x-axis (in Greenwich Mean Time (GMT, UTC), 06 is 11 PM, 12 is 5 AM, etc.).  Stronger returns are in purple, blue, and green.  The birds are obvious.  Around 03 UTC (8 PM) we we see the start of the bird echoes.  Lots of flying in the evening, which fades a bit in the middle of the night.  But you see a complete collapse after 5-6 AM as it starts getting light out.


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or is it a missing 777 ????

Prior to the invention of radar, this sort of thing (i.e. large radar echos of flapping monster of death) never happened. We can conclude that radar causes flocks of birds.

Joel O'Bryan

The radar time is around 0200Z. Minus 6 hours would make it 8pm local and an hour after local sunset. A better guess would be a surface explosion, as in WSMR weapons test, lofted a reflective dust plume into a strong west wind. A search of meteorological wind records and plotting a better origin pt coordinates could confirm or refute this hypothesis.
REPLY: Nope.
1. Birds like to fly at night when there is less turbulence and thermal gradients to contend with.
2. Explosion plumes expand and dissipate, this one gets tighter near the end.


I believe this conclusively proves that large flocks of birds being seen in these images, which were never observed before radar, are caused by an increase in CO2. :-7

Mark S

I don’t know, it’s suspiciously close to Roswell.

or chaff …

Don Newkirk

I live across a major road from a farmer’s field with a large pond frequented by large flocks of Canada geese. Their takeoff patterns are fascinating, and they don’t stop their movements at local sundown. I will now look to see their own “first two frames” leading to their customary recursive chevrons.


nothing mysterious about this!
19 March: UK Daily Mail: Staff Reporter: Pilots complain of being blinded by glare as they fly over giant mirrors powering world’s largest solar plant
Air traffic controller tells FAA of daily complaints from those traveling over desert facility
$2.2 billion plant uses 173,000 reflectors the size of garage doors to generate energy
The Ivanpah plant, in San Bernardino, uses 173,500 mirrors to reflect sunlight on to boilers, but despite its green credentials it has been criticized as a flying hazard.
Two anonymous complaints were made to the Federal Aviation Administration in August last year, complaining of a ‘blinding glare’ coming off the plant…
A spokesman for the FAA told Daily Caller: ‘The FAA is aware of potential glare from solar plants and is exploring how to best alert pilots to the issue.’
In one of the complaints, the pilot of a small transport plane described the glare from the mirrors, which are the size of garage doors, as ‘like looking into the sun’…
‘In my opinion the reflection from these mirrors was a hazard to flight because for a brief time I could not scan the sky in that direction to look for other aircraft,’ the pilot added.
The air traffic controller also warned of the dangers of glare, saying the tower received daily complaints as pilots passed over the facility in the late morning and early afternoon…

Steve Reddish

Anthony, I wonder if the bird swarm hypothesis is workable in this instance. I judge the plume in the radar still to have an east-west length of approximately 40 miles. Considering the barren landscape west of Tucumcari, such a large and dense flock seems unlikely.
REPLY: It could also be bats or bugs, but it definitely has swarming characteristics. Unfortunately, the animation doesn’t start from the very moment it appears on radar, but later. Bear in mind there is a lot of scatter with these and the radar cross section can be very large. – Anthony

Joel O'Bryan

Chaff released in combat aircraft defense system very much tends to be very punctuate in appearance. For that to be a chaff cloud, many hundreds of pounds would have to be released, possible as tactical and USAF special ops aircraft frequently use the range.
Still a weapons test or a static rocket motor test could launch a large dust cloud, and if an Al-powder based explosive/propellant was used it might have good reflectivity to look like chaff.


Large flocks migrating at night quite common in my area. Some interesting images here:

Ed MacAulay

“A spokesman for the FAA told Daily Caller: ‘The FAA is aware of potential glare from solar plants and is exploring how to best alert pilots to the issue.”

Couldn’t they put an anti-glare coating on the panels to protect air safety? /sarc

[SNIP too stupid to publish, plus a fake email address -mod]


I hate to say it, but I think birds is an unlikely explanation.
Shortly after the loop begins, the echo almost fills De Baca county, which is 2334 square miles in area. This would be an extraordinarily large flock of birds!
Unfortunately, I don’t have another explanation.
REPLY: Insects are also mentioned in the article. Bear in mind that the radar returns from these are highly scattered, and it makes the swarm appear larger. See the update in the post from Cliff Mass that shows swarms of birds covering several counties near Seattle. – Anthony


18 March: Quadrant: Tony Thomas: Finally, Some Real Climate Science
The American Physical Society has been amongst the loudest alarmist organisations whipping up hysteria about CO2, but a review of its position that has placed three sceptics on the six-member investigatory panel strongly suggests the tide has turned
By its statutes, the APS must review such policy statements each half-decade and that scheduled review is now under way, overseen by the APS President Malcolm Beasley…
Second, the sub-committee, after ‘consulting broadly’, appointed a panel to workshop the questions and then provide input to the new official statement on climate. The appointed panel of six, amazingly, includes three eminent sceptic scientists: Richard Lindzen, John Christy, and Judith Curry. The other three members comprise long-time IPCC stalwart Ben Santer (who, in 1996, drafted, in suspicious circumstances, the original IPCC mantra about a “discernible” influence of manmade CO2 on climate), an IPCC lead author and modeler William Collins, and atmospheric physicist Isaac Held.
Third, the sub-committee is ensuring the entire process is publicly transparent — not just the drafts and documents, but the workshop discussions, which have been taped, transcribed and officially published, in a giant record running to 500+ pages.[4]
Fourth, the APS will publish its draft statement to its membership, inviting comments and feedback…


Given the length of the animation (about 1.5 hrs) and distance traveled by the leading edge, it works out to about 60mph. I’m guessing that they were assisted by a tailwind, and perhaps even decided to move because of that. The other interesting this is that judging by the amount of De Baca county (about midpoint of the track) covered by the signal, the size was approaching 1500 sq mi. I’m wondering how much of that was really artifact, because the movement and changes in shape look pretty natural.


The playas at 34.655294° -105.900141° might be good candidates for a starting point, since they are probably wettest around this time of year. Note the line of bird choppers to the south.
REPLY: Good candidate, here is the satellite view, clearly a seasonal wetland:,-105.867004&spn=2.008193,1.972046&t=h&z=9


they were probably scared out of their trees by that nuclear warhead being detonated!

Steve from Rockwood

That was cool.

Alan Bates

A large flock of starlings in coordinated flight?


Obviously, it’s a plume of missing heat trying to find its way into the ocean deep. Probably got lost when it took a left turn at Albuquerque.


Another interesting thread sadly let-down by its lack of an essential-ingredient–and that’s, of course, a totally off-topic, inflammatory comment. I propose to repair that glaring defect:
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, David Appell cannot be dismissed as a mere booger-brain, homonculous-droid, bot-entity blog-wrecker. No! David is also the supreme and only living master of the position, known to master-yogi initiates in the highest occult circles, as the “Suppository Head Pose”. At great risk to the anonymous photographer’s life, we are fortunate to have this authenticated, understandably poor-quality photo-record of David “in action”: “&”


Swarms of birds foxed early British developers of radar for some time, who nicknamed the phenomena radar “angels”:

Bernie McCune

There are actually two possibilities if this is about living critters. There are a large number of birds at the Bosque del Apache reserve just south of Socorro but they tend to be nesting by just after sunset. There are 100,000s of mostly migratory waterbirds there. The other possibility is bats (and possibly insects that they might be chasing). There are two colonies of bats living in lava tubes just about 15 miles west of the Trinity site. Each colony is made up of about a million individuals and just before sundown they are an incredible sight to see as they depart their caves for a night of feeding. They leave in to two separate flights with each flight blackening the sky for about 30 minutes each. My bet is on at least a portion of the 2 million bats. These are not the bats at Carlsbad Caverns. Those are south of this area and I think there are fewer in that colony.

Amos McLean

As Alan Bates has mentioned above large ‘swarms’ of starlings, which are quite common in various parts of Britain are known as: a murmuration of starlings.
They are fascinating to watch too!

Green Sand

“It is very likely a large swarm of birds taking off.”
Do birds exhale CO2 on takeoff? Why else would the latest political derived radar register such an event?
Hitchcock would be intrigued!

Bernie McCune says:
March 19, 2014 at 4:48 pm
are the tubes small enough so they pour out in a really defined shape? never seen pics of stuff like that, bet it would look cool.

Bernie McCune

I have seen movies of a murmuration of starlings and there are starling sightings in New Mexico but I don’t think there are the large numbers of starlings found here compared to the UK. They certainly are not native to NM. The bat flights are quite fascinating to watch also but I would love to see a live murmuration of starlings!

would these be Jornada Bat Caves?
looking at pics now, pretty cool

Bob of Castlemaine

Not radar but amazing all the same – starling murmurations.


Interesting animation!
I see that the range rings indicate that the ‘flock’ was around 100 miles away from the radar center. This indicates the ‘flock’ were traveling at a great height, not just taking off.

Bernie McCune

The tubes are below ground level and are collapsed in several places. There is an extinct volcano several miles north of the bat site. So there are probably many miles of underground tubes in the area. It looks to me that the two colonies occupy adjoining tubes. The north colony tube opens to the south in a collapsed open area about 200-300 meters wide. The north colony underground portion of the tube may be a half of a km long. The south colony underground tube goes south from the big opening. The tubes are big – maybe 8 or 10 stories tall (deep). It seems like there are 10,000s of bats a minute swirling out of the tube openings. Wow! They circle into the sky and on the evening that I watched they seem to fill the sky in every direction and climbed higher until I could no longer see that part of the flight. Of course, as I noted earlier, they just kept pouring out of the mouth for about 30 minutes. The first flight became kind of a trickle,and then the next flight of the other colony started and that lasted for another 30 minutes. They seemed, on that evening anyway, to head off in different directions but I have no idea if that is common. And with so many bats there is a good chance that the radar only picked up a portion of the colonies. More than cool mind boggling to say the least!


The real question is how many of those birds got pulverized in wind turbines.


Bernie McCune says:
March 19, 2014 at 5:11 pm
Starlings are not native to North America. They are an invasive weed species here which should be eradicated, as they drive out native species.
A Shakespeare lover released starlings in NYC’s Central Park in 1890 & 1891 because he wanted America to enjoy all the birds mentioned in the Bard’s works. Within a decade the aggressive species had spread clear across the continent.
May he roast in Hell:

Bernie McCune

Yes it is the remains of the Jornada del Muerto Volcano. Go to Google Earth and find New Mexico. The volcano is at 32 deg 32 min 1.29 sec N and 106 deg 52 min 0.66 sec W. You can actually see a whole series of collapsed lava tubes to the south and south west of the cone. The bat caves are in that sw series of tubes. This is private land so there is no open access. We had permission to be there that one evening that I got to see this neat event. It apparently happens every evening like clockwork.


Regardless whether the radars paint them, the birds are coming north in force, right now.
They know bugs are gonna start emerging from their over-winter lairs.
Now I’ve surmised,…. birds (some/all) “see” in ultraviolet light.
Why else would they have fluorescent plumage.
I ask ?


IIRC, humans did not realize how much birds fly at night until radar became common in NW Europe during The Big One.
If there’s a definitive book on the European Theater night fighter war, it’s Alfred Price’s “Instruments of Darkness”. He’s a postwar RAF electronic warfare specialist who does well in balancing technical & operational aspects of the horrific night skies over WWII Germany.
IIRC the Nachtjagdwaffe claimed 7000 mostly British bombers & probably actually got most of them, unlike inflated day fighter claims.


Bernie McCune says:
March 19, 2014 at 5:53 pm
Speaking of bats emerging like clockwork, Austin, TX has built a music, food, drink, arts, crafts & child activity community festival around the timely flight of its estimated 1.5 million under-bridge bats:
When the local greens get their windmills, they can cut that down to one million bats.

Doug Allen

Bernie may be right about bats. However, millions of swallows are migrating this time of year and many other species including the Bosque del Apache Sandhill Cranes. My guess is Swainson Hawks described here-
“A classic species of the open country of the Great Plains and the West, Swainson’s Hawks soar on narrow wings or perch on fence posts and irrigation spouts. These elegant gray, white, and brown hawks hunt rodents in flight, wings held in a shallow V, or even run after insects on the ground. In fall, they take off for Argentine wintering grounds—one of the longest migrations of any American raptor—forming flocks of hundreds or thousands as they travel.”
Those interested in bird and other critter photography might take a peek at my photo blog here-
BTW, I’m one of the center left, conservationists, who is a lukewarmer and who follows this and many other climate blogs!

… it’s happened before (chaff release that is) –
One of the more unusual events:
Radar chaff over Redstone Arsenal unusual, lingered in atmosphere 10 hours
Chaff Detected by NWS Louisville Radar


Some local knowledge: The beginning is quite a ways north of the WSMR, probably 60 miles. There is a lot of Air Force training in that area, both US and German AF, and they like to train at night, so chaff is a possibility. The beginning is also 100 miles east of the Bosce Del Apache on the Rio Grand, which lessens the likelihood of birds.
REPLY: Chaff usually gives much stronger echoes, in the 60+ db range – Anthony


But bats are a possibility. that position is the north end of the lava field.


I wondered about this. It happens with Mexican Freetail bat colonies in central Texas throughout spring and summer. We love our bats!

Of some note, when and where did the dust storm that hit Lubbock Texas Tuesday nite start up?

Mark Luhman

I have witnessed a flock of Redwing Black birds leaving their roost site on Morning, it took over three hours for the flock to finish passing over. I was on that field goose hunting in north western Minnesota when I was still a youth. In north Dakota the flocks of snow geese look like clouds in the distance. they often travel over twenty miles from their roost site to where they feed, some time that was a determinant for us goose hunters in North Western North Dakota since often they would end up in Canada.


Birds are so cool! Its actually a more interesting explanation, if you like birds.

Re: the first image above from FDX Field Village/Cannon RADAR site
Here may be where this ‘stuff’ is originating – notice the plume originating from what looks like a singular point on the HDX White Sands RADAR:
2228z 17 Mar some sort of activity
0024z Begins in earnest near a ridge:
On LWIR imagery we have something taking place in that same area at 2345z, low level smoke may show up on RADAR but have little IR signature until a ‘puffy’ cumulus (caused by a rising airmass above a fire) is appears:
One can also see that ‘thing’ move across the Lubbuck NWS RADAR, as seen here:
And literally ‘through’ the Amarillo RADAR here:
One *could* work out the speed at which birds were flying given this imagery over a long trek. But
I’m prone to thinking this was smoke, originating back in NM from a short-duration T-storm initiated fire.
VERY DRY conditions (air temp 57 deg F, dew point 7 deg F ) existed on the surface map, as can be seen below for the period:
More info – New Mexico Wildfire map pages:
Prescribed burn schedules:

Also, a little longer loop of the FDX Field Village RADAR; note the passage over the RADAR site where it is seen to diminish (due to the ‘cone of silence’ effect; NWS WSR-88D looks, sans horizontally, of course) and is seen to ‘reassemble’ on the other side:
With the proper meteorological conditions, the smoke could have been capped from going above say 5 or 6,000 feet and it would normally be seen to diminish as it becomes either dilute or descends and precipitates back to earth (have seen this due to fires in Mexico before; literally we had ash coming down here in North central Tejas).

Joe Dunfee

In regards to the apparent speed with which some of the flocks seem to expand; could it be that rather than the speed of actual birds, we are seeing the speed at which other birds sense the other birds leaving, and then they take off and enter the vision of the radar? So, the radar is showing the expansion of the flock taking off from the ground.

re: JohnS says March 19, 2014 at 3:58 pm
Given the length of the animation (about 1.5 hrs) and distance traveled by the leading edge, it works out to about 60mph.
Have to get up to the 500 mb level to see prevailing westerly winds today, and speeds on the order of thirty knots:
Only about 15 at the 700 mb level:
800 mb level: