Just don't say "rods".
November 14, 2011 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I have a backyard nocturnal UFC (Unidentified Flying Creature) What am I seeing?

I've hesitated posting this question but WTH. I am curious. Please assume two things: 1) I'm a very good observer and B) I am not given to wild assumptions.

Born, raised, and lived most of my life in the Pacific Northwest in the less urban parts. I'm quite familiar with most of the flora and fauna of the region.

I live on a green belt that hosts the usual racoons, rabbits, owls, the occasional coyote, etc. I have a dual head halogen outdoor light for the deck.

Now, with the caveats out of the way, here are the salient bits and the question.

Last summer while waiting for the dog to do her night business, I was gazing up through the trees at the stars when something flew just a few feet overhead.

The flight was linear and level, no fluttering about. The creature had a fairly thin, tubular body. The wings did not flap as a bird would, nor was it on a descending glide path but it maintained its altitude.

There was no sound at all. If I hadn't been looking in the right place I would never have known it flew past. I have had birds fly over during the dog's night potty breaks; this was not a bird.

I estimate the length of the thing at ~9" and it moved pretty fast. A few seconds later a second one flew by, only this one was smaller, about 6" in length.

The closest thing I can compare it to, structurally, is a dragonfly but the flight characteristics were different and we don't have giant dragonflies here. Definitely not a bat (we have those as well).

Last night I saw the small one again, this time more at eye level. It confirmed to me again that it is not a bird or bat, the body looks insect like but it is much larger than the bugs we get around here and the flight was too direct and level for insects that I've observed before.

I'm willing to be wrong about what it is or is not so bring it on.
posted by trinity8-director to Pets & Animals (20 answers total)
How many wings did it have?
posted by rtha at 11:44 AM on November 14, 2011

This doesn't seem to fit with your 'insectile' description, but is a Flying Squirrel a possibility?
posted by sevenyearlurk at 11:50 AM on November 14, 2011

Chimney swift? They are nocturnal, with a gliding flight movement, and often described as "flying cigars."
posted by tully_monster at 11:54 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

There are a few types of large nocturnal moths that are native to the US, notably Luna moths and Sphinx moths (aka hawk moths, hummingbird moths). For moths, these things are enormous, 4-5" wingspan, but that's still smaller than your estimated 9". And they're more spring/summer beasts than autumn beasts.

You said insects, but in general, insects don't glide. If you couldn't hear flapping or fluttering or buzzing, I don't see how it could have been an insect.
posted by aimedwander at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2011

Maybe a hummingbird?
posted by rich at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2011

Big moth?
posted by mikepop at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2011

Flying squirrel. They're found everywhere with continuous tree cover in the US pretty much but very rarely seen. Most people have no idea they even exist. They are also nonsensicaly cute.
posted by fshgrl at 12:16 PM on November 14, 2011

Thanks for all the ideas. Keep 'em coming.

* wing-count: undetermined
* flying squirrels would be much too large/thick
* moths may be the most interesting idea, and I would love it to be the Luna, except for seeing one last night. The Luna was extraordinary looking.
* Chimney swift: wikipedia sez they live in the eastern US -- are they found in the PNW?
* Did I mention they were not gliding?
posted by trinity8-director at 12:17 PM on November 14, 2011

One thing you should keep in mind is that you are fairly incapable of accurately gauging the length of the thing. Its image is blurred by your vision along the axis of movement, and your brain reconstructs the image, attempting to remove blur.

So, something that looks 9" long could be 3" long, and moving 3 body-lengths during a single eye frame (approx. 30 ms). All of this is rough, hand-wavey math; the point is: the critter could be much shorter than it appeared.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:17 PM on November 14, 2011

Or a chimney swift, that makes more sense actually.
posted by fshgrl at 12:17 PM on November 14, 2011

Also, no fluttering = not a moth, AFAIK. Their wing structures simply aren't built for straight-line flight.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:18 PM on November 14, 2011

There are other swifts found in the west. I think Vaux's are to be found in the PNW.
posted by GodricVT at 12:19 PM on November 14, 2011

We have Vaux's and Black swifts here on the West coast. They're quite large, and their flight style is speedy and direct; they're also capable of turn-on-a-dime-in-midair maneuvers.

Also, can you explain a little what you mean by it not flapping as a bird would?
posted by rtha at 12:54 PM on November 14, 2011

We have chimney swifts on our property, and they make chattering sounds constantly when in flight, which doesn't fit the description in the OP. Are the Vaux's or black swifts silent?
posted by gimli at 1:00 PM on November 14, 2011

I bet it's a nocturnal bird. A nightjar or small owl.

The flight was linear and level, no fluttering about.
So it's probably not a bat, as they fly in really erratic patterns.

The creature had a fairly thin, tubular body.
Like a bird?

The wings did not flap as a bird would, nor was it on a descending glide path but it maintained its altitude.
Like how this owl is flying at the beginning of this video?

There was no sound at all.
Like an owl?

The northern pygmy owl is one of the smallest owls in the world, is fairly common, and lives in the pacific northwest.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:02 PM on November 14, 2011

You rightly dismiss the rods theory, but that may be what it is. I mean, what rods really are.

The "rod" phenomenon happens because fast flying little bugs get caught on film, but are much faster than film, so they blur in each frame and set up a pattern, sorta like when a car's wheels appear to move backwards on film. Your halogen lights (I think... I know other kinds of bulb do) strobe very quickly and could be producing the same effect. Not all bugs buzz.

I know I've observed this effect seeing bugs flying around street lights.
posted by cmoj at 1:13 PM on November 14, 2011

I think we need more description. Was it pale, or dark?

Did it have wings? I'm unclear from your description - you say it didn't flap like a bird would, but that the wing count was undetermined. Is this a winged animal that was gliding past?

I think it's most likely a nocturnal bird with a gliding habit. Birds can swoop past with fixed wings and without losing perceptible altitude in such a short distance.

The Common Nighthawk (scroll to bottom for pics in flight) is common in urban areas in the Pacific Northwest.
posted by ErikaB at 1:21 PM on November 14, 2011

I'm nthing the suggestions of some sort of nightjar - Common Nighthawk, or Common Poorwill. They, like owls, fly so quietly. It's really freaky actually. I never really noticed that bird wings make noise until an owl flew over me and I just noticed the complete lack of sound. Even if the bird wasn't calling when it went over you, you should be able to pick up the sounds from nearby birds (http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Poorwill/sounds or http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Nighthawk/sounds)

I'm not quite sure of your description of the flight - it didn't flap but wasn't gliding? If a bird isn't flapping, then it is gliding by definition. Or do you mean its wings weren't wide enough that it looked like it wasn't gliding?
posted by hydrobatidae at 2:15 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would say you have just described a praying mantis, but I don't know that they get that big in that neck of the woods.
posted by brownrd at 6:30 PM on November 14, 2011

brownrd, I thought praying mantis at first, too, but they are clumsy, slow flyers.

I think what trinity8 saw was definitely a bird. I thought swifts because I've heard them called "flying cigars," but a nighthawk of some kind might make more sense. The problem with owls is the wing shape--passing overhead it would be kind of rounded and blunt. But nighthawks have slender, aerodynamic wings. Do you remember what the shape of the wing was like?
posted by tully_monster at 6:46 PM on November 14, 2011

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