Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Probably not ball lightning

On September 20, 2009, at around 15:36 MDT, I was driving north on I-25, somewhere around the first five miles north of the northernmost Belen exit, in a hard rain in the middle of an electrical storm. My speed was somewhere over 60 mph. I saw what looked like a direct lightning hit on one of the utility poles paralleling the freeway on the east side, a fraction of a mile ahead of me. I was concentrating on the road, since the rain was coming down hard enough that I was using the faster windshield wiper speed, traffic was somewhat heavy, and visibility was not very good.

A very short time after the lightning hit, my attention was attracted to a bright light in the direction of the pole that had just been hit. At first it resembled a reflection of the sun, as when a highway sign is hit by a low-angle sunbeam and reflects it completely. However, that wouldn't explain it; the sky was completely overcast and there were no holes where the sun might have gotten through.

As I approached the impact site, it became apparent that the source of the light was at about the same distance east of the freeway as the utility wires. The light was a brilliant blue-white color, and it didn't seem to be a point source. It looked sort of amoeba-like, although the windshield didn't really give me a clear view. It was not at a pole, but about a third of the distance between the nearest pole and the one just south of it.

As I passed even with the site of the light, it seemed to me that it was not a point source at all, but an irregular blob of brilliant light at least a few feet in diameter, judging the distance by parallax. Its angular size was perhaps half the size of my fist held at arm's length.

Wrenching my attention back to the road, I had a strong afterimage, as when one inadvertently looks at the sun. I was a little concerned that I might have burnt my retina, but the afterimage faded within a minute or so. I checked both my rear-view mirrors as soon as I could spare the attention, but did not see a strong light in either mirror. The duration of the light was at least five seconds, perhaps as much as ten.


New Mexico Tech is well-supplied with weather researchers, and I asked some of them about this. I was wondering if it were ball lightning. Here is a reply from Dr. Harald Edens:

I've seen a handful of reports and even a photo from alleged ball lightning in The Netherlands when I still lived there, that were caused by lightning-induced arc-over between tramway or railway overhead power lines that are everywhere in the cities over there. It made me very skeptical of ball lightning reports that have to do with power or phone lines.

As far as I know, many ball-lightning reports that cannot be explained by other means (including my own observation several years ago) are of some phenomenon that is not necessarily attached to anything. It also apparently is not all that bright (about the brightness of a 100W bulb), while plasma arcs on power lines can be blinding. Perhaps the arc looked big and spherical because it was scattering light through microscopic dust on your windshield, or it happened to be larger than the wire separation due to convection of the plasma arc that makes it bend upward into an inverted 'U' shape. I myself find anything that is extremely bright difficult to distinguish in shape, and appears round.

This is only my opinion, and ball lightning or not, I find it an interesting observation of yours!

It seems that based on the surface brightness alone, my observation was of a simple arc and not ball lightning. And there was a lot more than dust on my windshield at the time—it was a heavy, driving rain.

If you are reading this and have any other thoughts on what may have caused it, please leave a comment or send e-mail to

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Melrose Woods: A cultural battleground

Most of New Mexico's hard-core birdwatchers would agree that Melrose Woods is either the best single birdwatching spot in the state, or at least way up there. However, since it is also beloved of dove hunters, it is the locus of the occasional skirmish in our beloved American culture wars.

This bit of state trust land contains a few acres of poplars, some quite large. It is the only big patch of wooded land for many miles, in the middle of a huge sea of grasslands. During migrations, especially in May and September, there are generally numbers of migrant birds resting and feeding there. Moreover, it has been the location of a number of amazing records, such as Fan-tailed Warbler and Gray Silky-flycatcher, that are hard to find anywhere in North America. Located near mile marker 354 on US-60, on the north side of the highway, west of Melrose (and around 30 miles west of Clovis, NM), the highway gate is at 34°25'54"N, 103°48'07"W. There is a chain but no lock. Be sure to leave the gate closed.

Here is a quotation from my online field notes of September 4, 2004:

Drove into Melrose Trap to find five truckloads of dove hunters staring dourly at me. I can't imagine why I didn't blend right in, being a good old boy from southeast NM from way back. Maybe it was the giant camera rig, the binoculars, or the shorts and Birkenstock sandals. They were blasting away with shotguns right next to the trucks, probably to see if they could make me jump (they didn't).

My field notes didn't record the social interaction. I looked around at the hunters and focused on one who was considerably older, sort of the patriarch of the group. “Did y'all do any good?” I asked, which is a polite way in this culture to inquire about success in hunting and fishing. He nodded deeply. “Excellent. Glad to hear it,” I said, and continued on into the woods. When I returned they had left. Dove hunting is an early-morning activity; I didn't expect they'd linger.

Growing up in Hobbs, I was really quite comfortable around hunters. You have to be. When deer season opened, over half the male population of the public schools would be gone.

Last weekend, I spent all of one day and pieces of two more working Melrose for interesting records and what bird photos I could get. Saturday the 5th I was there for a couple of hours but left at 5pm. I noticed that the birdwatchers had hung a couple of hummingbird feeders in the woods, the better to get looks at the migrant hummingbirds.

Sometime after I left and before dawn the next morning, party or parties unknown blew one of the feeders to bits with a shotgun, and left a note: “You are fucking gay bitches!”

This didn't particularly surprise me. I knew a few intolerant yahoos in Hobbs, along with every other kind of people.

However, next day I was out there by myself around mid-day and a couple of youths showed up in a loud, purple pickup. I was sitting a little ways into the woods and came out to see what all the noise was. I did not converse with the gentlemen, but I did see at one point one of them holding what might have been a long gun, or maybe he just brought out a broom with an extra-long handle—I could only see it in silhouette. They climbed around on some of the old buildings and walls; they didn't approach me and I didn't approach them. I sat down and continued watching birds, with one eye on my car. After a while I ate lunch at the car, then left for a while, hoping they'd leave. They were gone 45 minutes later when I came back.

I have no idea whether they were involved in the destruction of the hummingbird feeder or the angry note.

Sorry if you were expecting a slam-bang ending. They can't all be Pulitzer material. Call it just an observation of life in these times.