Where skeptics (don’t) fear to tread

By Phil Plait | November 12, 2006 10:31 pm

I have a somewhat simple view on life.


For example, if I see something in a photograph, and it looks a little funny, my first reaction is to assume that I am seeing something ordinary in an unusual way. So if I’m sitting, say, on top of a Ferris wheel at the state fair, and I take a picture, and this thing shows up:

I’d look at it and say to myself: "It has wings, and a head, and maybe feathers, and is high in the air over a well-lit fair ground. I’m thinking it’s a bird."

But of course, I’m just a narrow-minded scientist with no imagination. Obviously, as anyone can plainly see, this is clearly an angel.

Yeah, you read that right. An angel.

Or so it’s reported in the Tampa Bay news (there’s a video linked to the segment there, too). Catherine Austin, the woman who took this picture, says it’s an angel. Her evidence?

“It looks just like an angel,” Catherine says. “It even has a ray of light that comes from the bottom toward the body of the angel and it’s centered right in the middle of the picture – and I believe in angels. It’s just an angel.”

Duh. And I figured it was just a bird. What was I thinking?

OK, yes, I shouldn’t make fun of her. But c’mon, really… just how much of this are we supposed to take? Look at the picture. It’s a bird! Maybe, just maybe I might be convinced it’s a moth. But I’ll take either one — both of which have heads, bodies, wings, can fly, and (and this is the clincher) are known to exist — over an angel.

Both she and her son, however, have already thought of this:

“There are some skeptics who say it’s something other than an angel, but most people who see it immediately say it’s an angel,” says Catherine.

“It’s got a head, wings, legs, and if that doesn’t look like an angel, I don’t know what does,” says Frederick, her son.

I’ll point out that despite the son’s claims, the object in the picture does not appear to have any legs. That rules out Clarence, at least.

Let me be a little more fair. If people want to believe in angels, there’s not much I can do to stop them. It’s their right to believe in whatever they want. But no matter what, looking at a picture of a bird and saying it’s an angel is silly no matter what you believe.

Maybe I’ll petition the new Congress and ask them that they make my pareidolia page required reading.


Well, who knows. Certainly Ms. Austin is wrong; whatever she saw at the state fair wasn’t an angel. But as Mrs. BA just pointed out to me, maybe it’s not an angel or a bird. Maybe it’s the state fairy!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Science, Skepticism

Comments (103)

  1. Well aren’t angels insects anyway? I mean they got six limbs.

  2. ABR

    My vote goes for sphinx moth. The outline looks good and many sphinx moths are night flyers — was the picture taken at night or at dusk? Plus, many sphinx moths are of a size and beat their wings fast enough to be mistaken for hummingbirds.

    Also, I don’t think South Carolina (or any of the southern states for that matter) has or would ever admit to having a state fairy!

  3. Is there some property of the coriolis effect that causes weird to spin to the southeast of the North American continent.

    It looks like an ascending pigeon, lit from the bottom, to me.

    Would have made for some cool video if there had been a hungry peregrine falcon nearby.

  4. TheBlackCat

    This is the Tampa Bay area news after all. The same Tampa Bay area that was convinced a smear on a window was the image of the Virgin Mary.

    It also happens to be the same Tampa Bay area with a very large population of seagulls. Seagulls, are attracted to place with lots of people because people = garbage = food. So a fairground seems like a great place for a seagull. So they gave good advice. When the fair comes around, definitely look up. If you are eating something, you are very likely to see someone looking down at you. Just make sure they are not directly overhead or you could be in for an unpleasant evening.

  5. It looks out of focus to me. So which way was the camera facing? What was in that direction? Naturally that isn’t reported.

    Actually, it looks to me like light shining out from under a tent or something. Note that the “wings” make a right angle.

    But, really, it is hard to say anything at all about something so out of focus.

  6. snarkophilus

    Amusement park? In South Florida?

    Clearly, it is Tinkerbell.

  7. Arthur Maruyama

    My guess is that it is one of several species of sphinx moth lit up by the flash of the camera (even nearly black objects can appear white when captured photographically using a flash, especially in night shots). This also helps to explain why it was flying at night and was otherwise unnoticed.

    You can find several candidate species on this page:
    Search for “florida” and take a look at the example photos.

  8. TheBlackCat

    The photograph wasn’t actually taken in Florida, that was just where it was reported. The photograph was taken in South Carolina.

    Tampa isn’t really south Florida, either it is more central.

  9. Actually, when I watched the video, the first questions that came to my mind had nothing to do with the bird/bug thing…

    It is stated that it must be an angel because an angel would be watching over her because she’s afraid of heights.

    That raised two immediate questions:

    1. If you’re afraid of heights, why would you EVER get on a Ferris wheel, let alone take pictures which would require you to look around? I have a relative fear of hornets, so I don’t go poking at the nests, for example.

    2. Do angels just not care if you’re not afraid of heights? This is a good question for the angel crowd…

    God: Yo, Angel Bob. Go watch that woman… she’s afraid of heights and, umm, as Geordi would say, that wheel is about to experience some structural integrity failure if you catch my drift.

    Angel Bob: You got it God! I’ll make sure there’s a picture of me, but I’ll be in bird form floating over a spotlight or maybe a light from a tent. That will show your awesomeness. Probably make the news too and I bet even some skeptics will be talking about us.

    God: make it so.

    Angel Diane: What about the guy in car 2? Or the other 50 people on the wheel.

    God: #&@* them, not afraid of heights. Losers.

  10. Tim G

    This reminds me of some film and video director who claims to have discovered a new life form, “rods”. These rods whiz around outdoors all the time and no one else had noticed them. At least one cable channel aired a pseudodocumentary that showed some of his video caputures of the phenomena. They looked just like flying insects to me.

    Skeptic’s Dictionary entry for “rods”

    Frames and analysis

  11. csrster

    The first question that came to my mind is “How does she know what an angel looks like?”.

  12. skeptigirl

    Typical reporting of recent times, no questions, no context, no scale, no rest of the picture, nothing but what the interviewee says is true.

  13. Ben Main

    Not only is it a bird, it’s a hummingbird. The fact that a blurry, overexposed picture of one at night makes someone think it’s an angel is a sad critique on how some people’s will to believe so easily overcomes their will to see reason.

  14. Gary Ansorge

    Obvious wing structures, apparently feathers. Why would a supernatural being even REQUIRE wings to fly? When I’m flying(in dreams) I never have wings,,,Anybody out there into computer enhancement???

    GAry 7

  15. OK

    Angelology 101:
    Angels are supernatural servants of God an at times have been used as messengers. They are only ever refereneced as being in their normal form in the throne-room of God. Jewish mythology references a battle between angelic beings when Satan tried for the throne. These myths are not considered canonical.

    The New Testament references how people have entertained angels unaware, so angels can take on human form and we would not recognise them as such. Thee are apocryful stories of strangers just showing up out of nowhere, rendering aid and then vanishing. No reference of wings. Of course an “angel” could be an actual human who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

    That said, I have to go with Phil on this, my studies in angelology leads me to the conclusion that they would never allow themselves to be caught on film, so the image has to be something of a more mundane nature, such as a bird or a moth.

  16. Melusine

    This picture was taken at night? Without seeing the whole picture and the context of the size of the object it’s hard to tell, but my first reaction at night is usually a bat or bird. The Mexican free-tailed bat (we have plenty here in Houston) has that straight upper part of the wing when flying at such an angle. The notches in the lower wing and the fat body could easily be a bat. See angles of flying bats on this Google image search. South Carolina has plenty of bats, including the Mexican free-tailed bat. Because it’s blurred one can’t see if it has little ears.

    Birds at night are also attracted by lights (as is a problem in NYC with the WTC lights), and I’d go with a moth, too, because of the notched bottom wing and fat body. A bird is my last choice because of the wing angle. But bats and moths, definitely. Again, without having a sense of the size of this thing, one can’t be sure.

    If she wants to think a bat or bug is watching over her…but it’s disturbing that that the article doesn’t pose possible animal or insect life as a likely explanation. Apparently reality is just not interesting enough for some folks. Grrr!

  17. Swintah

    My money is on tobacco hornworm moth, or something like it.


    Reasons why:

    Birds generally loathe night-flying: moths live for it
    Generally, moths go unnoticed (unless they’re flooded with a flash, then they would look bright)
    Shape resemblance, stiff wings, fat body, small head
    Within distribution range
    No scale, out of focus, may be very near the camera

    Sorry, no spell check.

  18. Chris

    Reality just doesn’t make for a “good story” any more.

  19. Zoot

    Looking at the video, the picture is of the view from the top the ferris wheel so the focus is way out there.
    I’d guess it’s a moth that is closer to the camera and slightly out of focus, and also caught in the flash. Thus the blue tinted, bright, fuzzy quality.

  20. Angelology 101 addendum

    I said Jewish mythology references a battle between angelic beings when Satan tried for the throne. These myths are not considered canonical.

    Forgot to add, but there is an allusion to the concept of fallen angels in one of the Peter epistles and the epistle of Jude.

    I hope this makes matters clearer.

    I still go for a more mundane explanation like moth bird or bat.

  21. Grand Lunar

    Looks too large to be a moth or bat (and don’t bats usually have brownish colored fur?). Of course, without knowing how close to the camera the thing was, it’s rather difficult to know the size.

    I’m guessing it was a seagull or pigeon.

    Too bad alternative explainations were given in that news video. Heck, a regular reader of this website would’ve worked out just fine to set the record straight!

  22. Tukla in Iowa

    What would the angel’s actual job be if she is just afraid of heights? Did it slip a sedative into her corn dog?

  23. Michelle

    Oh this is just ridiculous. There’s no legs, and the form of the “body” is REALLY not looking like a human being. Not even one dressed in heavy robes.

    Religious people who wish to prove their faith make me laugh.

  24. Melusine

    Grand Lunar, I agree with you. The picture is obviously over-exposed so the color of the thing or it’s finer details is irrelevant – it’s too blurred. Was the ferris wheel at a stopping point or moving? Somewhere I have a picture of birds I took at night on the beach with a ghastly spotlight at the end of the pier. I’ll see if I can locate it.

  25. Melusine

    I meant to say I agreed with Zoot. Sorry.

  26. Michelle wrote

    Religious people who wish to prove their faith make me laugh.

    And it makes me wince when religious people do it extremely badly and fall into a whole slew of pit traps, dragging down others with them and making our jobs harder as a result.

  27. It has no legs because it´s a CRIPPLED angel, where do you think all those kids in wheelchairs go when they die? 😉

    Question: Was there a mall opening nearby?

  28. Michelle

    You know Sticks, I think it would be much more easier if they just accepted that you cannot prove faith. You can’t prove your religion! You can’t just point something and say that is proving your religion exists…

    It destroys the whole CONCEPT of faith.

  29. Mike O'Connell

    Zomg! Look the skeptics have several theories on the origin. This clearly shows that they are wrong!

    Good article. It provides a good distraction from Physics class.

  30. Before reading the text and seeing the picture, my first thought was that it was a moth…

    As far as I know, there is no mention in the Bible that angels have wings… or fi they did, they had more than just two (Seraphim have 6, for instance). And don’t angels usually appear to deliver a message, not just show up for a photo op?

  31. Michelle wrote
    You can’t prove your religion! You can’t just point something and say that is proving your religion exists…

    We were once taught by our late physics master at high school that you can not prove anything, only provide evidence to support what you suppose. (IIRC)

  32. Daffy

    Let’s be fair; it does kinda look like an angel. Of course, from certain angles, and with the right lighting my Mulberry tree has a human face which signifies, well, that I have an imagination. So it does kinda look like an angel.

  33. Daffy

    Let’s be fair. It does kinda look like an angel. Of course, from certain angles, and with the right lighting my Mulberry tree has a human face which signifies, well, that I have an imagination. So it does kinda look like an angel.

  34. sirjonsnow

    Why isn’t it dancing on the head of a pin??

  35. Daffy

    Sorry for the double post!

  36. Obvious wing structures, apparently feathers. Why would a supernatural being even REQUIRE wings to fly? When I’m flying(in dreams) I never have wings,,,Anybody out there into computer enhancement???

    In my dreams, I don’t fly so much as teleport about, with a POP! as the air in the space I vacate rushes in to fill the void of my leaving. I was actually thinking about this the other day and it raised an interesting physics issue…

    Assuming, for the moment, that teleportation is possible, when an object teleports in a place that isn’t a vacuum it would leave a space in the medium in which it was originally located. If we presume that medium is “the atmosphere” then the air would rush in with a loud POP! (probably more of a substantial BANG! for someone my size). This could possibly have unpleasant effects for people and objects nearby. But that’s not the worst of it… what happens at the other end. The teleporting object would appear and be required to displace its volume of air (or whatever) at the far end. The instantaneous compression of a volume of gas equal to the volume of the object almost certainly will do something nasty to things nearby, particularly if the teleportation is into a closed space. So unless teleportation involves simultaneously moving object A from point B to C and moving an equal amount of whatever is at point C back to point B, teleportation would be a noisy, messy business.

    I should note that this sort of thing is best considered over a bottle of Scotch.

    The first question that came to my mind is “How does she know what an angel looks like?”.

    That was question 3 for me, but the answer I came up with is that God told her. Yeah, that’s a circular answer, but seriously, doesn’t everyone “know” what an angel looks like (even though there’s no consensus :) )

    Not only is it a bird, it’s a hummingbird.

    I went back and looked, that’s a definitely possibility. It’s hard to tell because there’s no reference for scale, but it certainly would better explain the wing shape than “pigeon” or “gull”. If it was a hummingbird, it would also have to be much closer to the camera.

  37. George

    It is argued that, according to scripture, angels do not have wings. Even if you elect to consider the cherubims and seraphims as being angels, then you need two pair and three pair of wings, respectively, not one pair (I’m pretty sure).

    We tend to believe what we want to believe and will always seek reasonable support of some kind for our isms.

  38. I know we are a little backwards in Tampa, but Come on Phil, isn’t the link to the South Carolina State Fair — NOT in TAMPA? Give us some repect PLEASE!

  39. Sticks wrote, in discussing angelology 101:

    Forgot to add, but there is an allusion to the concept of fallen angels in one of the Peter epistles and the epistle of Jude.

    Jude also accepts the apocryphal Book of Enoch as an inspired work — i.e., a record of what Enoch saw after he was taken bodily into heaven like a cow into a UFO, during the three-hundred-sixty-fifth year of his unusually pious life.

  40. Rick Johnson

    Zoot is right it is a moth. You can see the double wing. No bird has 4 wings but moths do. It is a type of sphynx moth. They have exactly the body and wing shape seen in the photo. They are gray underneath and invisible to the eye in the glare lighting of the fair. But would be overexposed in the flash picture taken only a couple feet away from it. These moths are quite common and attracted to light. The upper side of the wing (unseen in this photo) is dark with a white edge on the upper wing. You can see that white edge showing through the wing just as a bright flash would show it. Strobe flash froze movement but image is blurred because it is so close. You know its close as it is over exposed. A bird, except a ruby throated hummingbird, would have to be several feet away to be that size and would not be overexposed that much and would be clearer. I have lots of these moths around my house and see them exactly as in this photo all the time.


  41. MikeNJ

    Why do angels have wings?
    Are they subject to the laws of physics and aerodynamics?

    This type of thing always baffled me.
    So, let me see if I’ve got it straight.

    1) God is the Supreme Being….he made the heavens, the Earth, the planets. Heck, he made EVERYTHING!
    2) He has the power to breathe life into…well, whomever/whatever he chooses.
    3) He can also remove life as well, at anytime, and for whatever reason.

    But then, some random ‘image’ appears in a rain puddle….on the side of an office building….on a coffee bun….in a photograph…or wherever, and it’s almost always followed by cries of “It’s a miracle!” and ‘proof of God’s existence’.

    In other words, after creating the universe, the cosmos, you, me,…EVERYTHING!…we’re supposed to drop to our knees in absolute amazement & rapture when a cinnamon bun kinda/sorta looks like the Virgin Mary?
    It’s as if God, in an effort to REALLY IMPRESS US, grunted and groaned, and squeaked-out an oil stain in a puddle that resembles the apostle Paul…..and that’s what everybody goes bananas over.

    Babies being born…life procreating?

    Images from the Hubble telescope?

    The Hubble telescope?

    This potato chip looks exactly like the apostle Peter.


    Same thing with statues.
    They’re marble.
    They were a hunk of marble before being carved into Saint Whomever.
    Did you pray to it before it was carved?
    It’s stone.
    It’s not a telephone line to the almighty.

    (Conservative Republican…..and Catholic!)

    ps. On a similar note….kind of…
    Terry Schiavo.
    Poor woman suffered severe brain damage and wasted away.
    (An absolute tragedy that I will not make light of.)
    However, many prayed for her recovery.
    She was one her way to meet God, so….why pray – to God – to prevent her from being with him?

  42. Eighthman

    I know! It’s “angel-LIKE.” Now someone can write a press release!

  43. Mark Martin

    “This potato chip looks exactly like the apostle Peter.

    What makes it even worse is that there are no images of Peter, et al, having any provenance, and therefore the ‘tater chip looks like what some fraction of the population tacitly assume said individuals looked like (assuming of course that they ever lived at all).

  44. elgarak

    Now I know why I never photograph angels or ghosts.

    Because I know that the flash will not reach the object from the top of a ferris wheel, so I don’t even bother to turn it on…

  45. frogmarch

    God thinks-“I’ll just send this woman a white dove to show her some peace.”

    [another of Gods plans goes wrong]

  46. Phobos

    “…and I believe in angels. It’s just an angel.”

    Can’t argue with that, right?

  47. Irishman

    Oh, come on, you obviously don’t give enough credit to the subtlety and creativity of the Almighty. I mean, why send an actual angel, in corporeal or energy form, that could be seen by everyone at the time and confirmed. No, it’s much more subtle and therefore powerful to send a bird/moth to get just the right position to appear to be an angel, only in the photograph after the fact. That way, the faithful know to believe, but the non-believers can smugly assume they know better in their error of naturalistic causes.


    For those of you only seeing the still photo, check the linked video from the written article. It shows the photo in context. I didn’t listen to the audio, but what bugs me is it doesn’t appear they saw the image at the time, but only upon looking at the photo after the fact. If so, what possible use could that be for being a guardian angel? I mean, how does it make her feel better at the time to find out after the fact that the angel was there?

    At first I was sure it was a bird. Moth? The wings seemed wrong – too small for the area to fit my preconception of what a moth looks like. But some of the linked images of moths fit very well in silhouette, so I can accept it as a moth or a bird. As far as birds not flying around at night, I see it all the time around brightly lit parking lots and such. They like the insects hanging out around the lights.

    Evolving Squid said:
    >1. If you’re afraid of heights, why would you EVER get on a Ferris wheel, let alone take pictures which would require you to look around? I have a relative fear of hornets, so I don’t go poking at the nests, for example.

    I do have a fear of heights. It has become more pronounced in recent years. In fact, my office building is especially conducive to evoking said discomfort. There is an open atrium stretching six floors down the center of the lobby. The elevators have glass walls, the walkways around the atrium are open metal grates, and the piece de resistance is the stairway up the center of the atrium that projects out into the middle, with open metal grill railings. It reminds me of the walkways on the Death Star, huge abyss, narrow walkway, no safety railings. Yet I’m fascinated by standing near the edge and looking over, triggering the vertigo and then trying to withstand it. Recently I went to a huge, 30 story hotel with a giant open lobby. It was bizarre walking around, trying to look over the sides, and then the panic getting too strong and having to step back to the walls.

    So yes, I can see being afraid of heights and getting on a Ferris Wheel. I mean, it’s a Ferris Wheel, not a random cliff edge on the Grand Canyon. It’s, well, not quite fun, but interesting to toy with the fear.

  48. DGKnipfer

    What I always find interesting about religious imagery in modern Christianity is that the renaissance artists created all of it over 1000 years after the death of Christ. So who sat for the portrait in Christ’s place? And how come he doesn’t look more Middle Eastern? Jesus’ mother was Jewish and we know that the Jewish people originally descend from Middle Eastern and North African regions of the world. Dad may have been above simple human categorizations such as European / Middle Eastern / African / Asian but I’d still expect some resemblance to mom. And yet all the portraits I see of Jesus are of some guy from Florence during the renaissance with dirty blond or light brown hair.

  49. This is unfortunately the way the media works today: They report the claim of something they wish were true, rather than the truth. It wasn’t always this bad, but I can’t say exactly what caused it to change.

    As for the issue of angels not actually having wings in the Bible, one must remember that there is a Biblical creature who does indeed have wings (and just two): The demon. Maybe what she took a picture of was her own personal demon, her fear of heights.

    “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to appear on a Burrito in Mexico.” – God (The Simpsons)

  50. I’ve done some PI in the past (Photo Interpretation), and I can’t completely buy the “moth” theory. The body shape is wrong and moths don’t have tapered wings.

    My guess (uh, hypothesis) is that it’s a hummingbird. The body shape is right, the wings are right, the lack of legs and the red tint to the head are all indications.

    Long ago I was doing some high-speed photography (1,000 frames/sec) of a radar chaff dispenser. The test was done outside in a rural area (it was at MBAssociates in San Ramon, for those of you in the Bay Area). The film cameras we used then took about 5 seconds to come up to speed after which you got about another 5 seconds of image time before you burned through your 100 ft. roll of film. After the film was processed I was running it through the analyzer, and in the leader section what should appear but a hummingbird flying through the frame! It took about 10 frames to fly from edge to edge, and I could count its wing flaps (about 70/sec).

    It does happen in real life.

    – Jack

  51. ABR

    Sorry to contradict you, Jack Haggerty, but many moths do have tapered wings. Perform a Google Image search on sphinx moths (Lepidoptera, family Sphingidae) to see for yourself. As Rick Johnson and I both suggested, a sphinx moth would be a good guess for the culprit in the picture — tapered wings, fat body, the legs would be appressed to the body for flight, apparently four wings based on the indentation on either side and the critter is flying at night and possibly attracted to the lights of the fair.

    I have to agree, however, with several other commenters that this picture may not allow for a positive identification. This critter either has single wings or paired wings which are coupled. That rules out fairies, doesn’t it?

    What we need is a specimen! Too bad the photographer didn’t have a net and a kill-jar handy.

  52. Melusine

    I watched the video. I’ll definitely go with a moth now. I remember all the bugs and moths around amusement park rides at night. A hummingbird at night around a ferris wheel? I don’t think so.

    I think these people just like the attention from the news. They aren’t interested in honesty.

  53. Donnie B.

    In defense of the Tampa TV station, the item was posted in their “Weird News” section.

  54. DCB

    One of the problems with an ordinary (but skeptical) person like me looking at this photo is the trouble of knowing whether the wings are going forward or backward from the body. By staring at the image, I can make them go both directions….. I have that trouble when I look at craters on the moon or other (heavenly) body — I can’t tell if it is a mountain or a depression. The footsteps on the moon have been particularly difficult for me to see!! I suppose there is a name for this phenomenon. Good work on the comments on this photo….. Regards from Alaska…..

  55. Zoot

    Sphinx moth does indeed seem to be it:


    ..or maybe a fairy. Not an angel though.

  56. Michael

    The wings seem to be behind the body, or we would see them cross in front of the body to attach close to the center line, I think. Also, the flatter wing is at nearly a right angle to our line of sight, but is larger than the other wing, which is more like 45 degrees (0.79 radians for you unit junkies 😉 ) to our line of sight. If the wings were pointed towards the camera, the left wing should be larger than the right wing, but it’s smaller, therefore pointed away. Or the wings are at different pitch angles relative to the body, like the trailing edges on a banking airplane.

    I originally assumed it was an angel, until I realized it wasn’t an intentional photograph. That is, I thought it was intentionally designed to look like an angel. Then I thought it looked strikingly like a dove or pigeon. But it’s missing tailfeathers, which pretty much rules out most birds, including hummingbirds. I doubt a hummingbird would be flying that high in the air at night, but I have seen them fly pretty high before. They don’t look at all like bat wings to me, and they terminate too high on the body to be a bat.

    On further inspection, and based on a basic concept of angels being humanoids with wings, I’d say that would have to be a pregnant angel with no arms and fused legs.

    I think the moth explanation seems to fit best.

  57. Melusine

    Donnie B. Says:

    November 13th, 2006 at 11:47 am
    In defense of the Tampa TV station, the item was posted in their “Weird News” section.

    Good point, but the video is of a live newscast; the news anchor introduces the story and then the people being interviewed. The article is based on the interviews. Either way, as we well know, people seize upon these stories like hungry barnacles on a rock – let’s see if she eventually sells her picture. 😉

    Infophile: “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to appear on a Burrito in Mexico.” – God (The Simpsons)

    Lol, great line!

  58. Mark Martin

    What’s also funny is the son proposed that the angel was sent to look after his mom [because she’s afraid of heights]. Being afraid of heights isn’t the same thing as being endangered by heights, and she obviously didn’t think she was endangered, or wouldn’t have gotten on the wheel in the first place. If she was never in danger, why, then, would she have needed a guardian?

    Furthermore, why do the two of them assume an angel was there just for the mom? Weren’t there any other people at the fair? Maybe someone was down in the BBQ shack having a heart attack. I think the mom & son sound rather selfish.

  59. Melusine

    What do you mean, it was HER camera, HER angel, gosh darnit! 😉

  60. OK, I concede. That image of the moth is very convincing, especially the indentations on the trailing edge of the wings. It would be good, though, if someone could confirm that the range of the Sphinx moth (or similar looking species) includes the southeastern US.

    In my defense, I should point out that some hummingbirds are nocturnal (especially the ones that migrate across the Gulf of Mexico), they are attracted to red (lots of red lights at a carnival), and sugar (ditto), plus I have seen them under similar circumstances (the Alameda County fair in Pleasanton, CA), although never at night.

    – Jack

    PS to ABR: It’s only one “g”, and feel free to contradict me any time when you think I’m wrong!

  61. As usual, I love my comenters. I’m being swayed to the mothside myself.

  62. Gary Ansorge

    Evolving squid,: We’ll have to get together over a bottle of Glen Morangie someday,,,

    I only have dreams of flying when something in the dream lets me know I’m dreaming. In the most recent case(two nights ago) I was running around the National mall, looking for my misplaced Blazer, when a dude just told me,”Hey man, you’re dreaming,,,”That triggers the Lucid dreme phase, which usually lasts just a few minutes before waking. That’s when I like to fly. It’s so much fun,,,

    GAry 7

  63. Irishman

    BA, that’s with two “m”s. 😉

    (Homage to Jack Hagerty. Nevermind.)

  64. The only thing about this post that I would disagree with is where Dr. Plait says: “OK, yes, I shouldn’t make fun of her.” Why the heck not? If you can’t make fun of full-grown adults who choose to delude themselves with silly myths, who can you make fun of? I say enough with all the tiptoeing around peoples’ sacred nonsense.
    As for what came to mind when I first saw the picture, as well as after having taken a longer look, I’d have to agree with Ben Main; it’s a hummingbird. I’ve taken blurry photos of them myself… If only I’d have known I could have been on the news if I’d have claimed they were angels who were watching over me because of uh… my phobia of nectar-bearing flowers..

  65. Calli Arcale

    Sticks sez:
    Michelle wrote

    Religious people who wish to prove their faith make me laugh.

    And it makes me wince when religious people do it extremely badly and fall into a whole slew of pit traps, dragging down others with them and making our jobs harder as a result.

    It makes me wince when people embarass religion in this way. I mean really, we’re not all blithering idiots who believe the first thing we’re told! We don’t all jump at coincidences and paredolia! But to hear these people go on, you’d sure think we’re all hopeless, superstitious ninnies incapable of critical thinking.

    It looks like a moth to me, or possibly a hummingbird. They hold their wings in very similar postures.

    (Who the heck said angels had to look like this anyway? It’s as silly as this persistent image of Jesus as a northern European. Surely just an artist’s conceit, but it’s taken on the aspect of religious truth to a lot of folks.)

  66. ABR

    Haggerty – g = Hagerty….Got it. Sorry about that.

    There are a number of sphingid moths including several species in the genus Sphinx which may be found in the Southeast. I’ve been using sphinx moth in the common sense, and did not mean to imply the critter was necessarily a species of Sphinx. Arthur Maruyama provided a good link in a comment which didn’t come through until this morning (stuck, no doubt, in awaiting moderation limbo along with my first comment and a couple others).

    “…swayed to the mothside…” Being an aquatic entomologist I have to shudder at that statement — Lep people are weird! But then, they probably think I’m all wet so I guess it evens out.

  67. Vadim I.

    Any elf can see this is a PEGASUS. Even little gnomes know that white birds (crows) do not exist.

  68. Zoot

    Arthur Maruyama provided a good link in a comment which didn’t come through until this morning (stuck, no doubt, in awaiting moderation limbo along with my first comment and a couple others).

    That’s annoying. Now the rest of us just look like immitators. :)

  69. Melusine

    We should submit this photo to What’s That Bug? See here: http://whatsthatbug.com/sphinx_moth_3.html

    Look at all those moths–hummingbird moths, too. (I didn’t see Arthur’s post this morning – good link.)

    I’ve used a similar site for spiders. People are very helpful. I googled “sphinx moths in South Carolina.” Well, there seems to 1,655 moth species in South Carolina. Clicking on the little orange moths gets you pictures. I should carry my digital camera around and take picture of flying roaches at night – maybe they’d be Satan-like.

    I was touched by an insect…

  70. Melusine

    Look at this picture: the one in the right corner – the Carolina Sphinx moth – it looks like a darn bat! Does it not?


  71. Melusine

    Well, I’m just messing up the pictures here–this is the bat-like one:

  72. ABR

    “I was touched by an insect…”

    Wow, Melusine! That would make a great Power Point slide caption for an entomology lecture. Now if I only had a good picture to go with it…

  73. OK, I apologize if someone already posted this, but I don’t have time to wade through 70 comments (I’d sell my non-existant soul to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for that many comments to one of my posts) to ensure I’m not being redundant.


    “It looks just like an angel.” Really? Reminds me of this joke:

    A kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they drew. She would occasionally walk around to see each child’s artwork. As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was. The girl replied, “I’m drawing God.”

    The teacher paused and said, “But no one knows what God looks like.”

    Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, “They will in a minute.”

  74. Melusine

    ABR Says:
    “I was touched by an insect…”

    Wow, Melusine! That would make a great Power Point slide caption for an entomology lecture. Now if I only had a good picture to go with it…

    I’d rather be touched by an insect, than touched by an angel. But, praise ye aquatic bug people: I don’t have a good photo for you, just one where I was trying to get the neat shadows these two amorous cuties were making. See what bad photos can do? I’m such a nerd – they make me homesick for New England woods and streams. Taken in May of this year: http://img216.imageshack.us/img216/5434/510200601tz3.jpg

  75. Gary 7: I get lucid dreams roughly once a week. The trick is simply to convince yourself that you can do it, and (more importantly) that it’s no big thing either. There’s nothing worse than suddenly realising that you’re dreaming, then having the realisation of it waking you up before you can enjoy it! It’s a bit like Arthur Dent discovering how to fly in the Hitch-Hiker book. The trick is to take it as something quite normal and unremarkable, as in “OK, so I’m dreaming, which means I am in total control of my surroundings.” Also, another trick is to repeat to yourself just before you nod off; “The next thing I will experience will be a dream. I will realise this and control it with ease.” – or something along those lines.

    All off topic I’m afraid, but lucid dreams fascinate me. I believe that anybody can do it, the trick is simply knowing you can. I’m thinking of writing something on this subject for my own website. As for the angel/bird/moth/whatever – two words: Occam’s Razor.

  76. Gary Ansorge

    Occams Razor,,,I’d try anything for a close shave,,,that is, if I was into shaving,,,
    The simplest explanation is usually the best unfortunately, what is simple for rationalists is anything but for those overwhelmed by change. Adhering to simple, dogmatic interpretaions of reality seems to be a real lifeline for most folk. Evolution really isn’t kind, it just IS the way it is. We will progress, or die trying.

    Gary 7

  77. Troy

    My first impression of the image (before I read the description) was reminiscent of the phoney faires some English girls did about 60 years ago or so. They later recanted and admitted they were fake. They did use insect/butterfly wings for the wings which leads me to think this image is an insect. Another issue is that it looks dark and bugs are attracted to lights on amusement park rides after dark. (I recall running into a swarms at 40 mph at Cedar Point.) Some markings can be seen on the wings, you don’t see that as much in birds (or angels!)

  78. Yeah, you cats can debate flashlit moth vs. hummingbird all night and support it with your googled images if you like. But I happened across definitive evidence supporting the woman’s claim.

    IF you dare to click on this.


    Uh huh…not so skeptical now, are ya?

  79. This is a test. For some reason I’m unable to post here, and if this doesn’t work, I’ll have to figure out why.

  80. Well, to quote CS Lewis (fwiw) (or paraphrase cause I have to leave for work in 2 minutes and don’t have time to find the book), “angels have wings to because painters symbolize flight, and angels have feathered wings and devils have bat wings, not because spirutual degeneracy causes feathers to turn to membranes, but because men like birds better than bats”. IOW, this woman is falling for medieval symbolism and taking it seriously because she was never taught anything. She probably thinks dead people (especially little children) become angels – another thing for which there’s no theological basis whatsoever.

  81. Gary Ansorge

    Dean: Wow,cool!

    GAry 7

  82. Dan

    you guys don’t get it!!! It has to be an angel!!! That way, it means more money when you sell the picture…

  83. OK, maybe it’s NOT and angel after all. Although my previous comment links to an image that’s fairly compelling…

    Here’s a link to someone who appears to have busted the myth–complete with an image sequence.


  84. Zoot

    It could be a hummingbird, but the photoshop exercize on that page doesn’t really indicate anything either way.

  85. Calli Arcale

    [quote]She probably thinks dead people (especially little children) become angels – another thing for which there’s no theological basis whatsoever.[/quote]

    The only theological basis for angels at all holds that they are entities created apart from the world to perform various functions on behalf of God. One could class them as demigods. Actually, you get a pretty good idea of how the Bible depicts angels if you read J.R.R.Tolkein’s “Silmarillion”, especially the first “book”, “Ainulindale”. It’s not meant as a theological treatise; it’s pure fantasy. But Tolkein crafted Middle Earth to resemble our world in important ways, and to him (a devout Catholic), angels were important. Most readers won’t notice that, though, because the Ainur in his book aren’t bewinged spirits of the deceased, and they don’t really resemble our typical modern conceit of an angelic figure. They resemble pagan gods, actually.

    Interestingly, medieval theologans were well aware of this, and their concepts of angels aren’t much like popular ones today. It’s only relatively recently that we’ve developed this peculiar concept of angels.

  86. icemith

    Well I looked at the video from the Wierd News broadcast, and agree that it basically had nothing to do with the actual photo of the “object”. It did set the scene however. I guess our correspondent was taking shots of the fairground and the lights – what else would she be taking from the top of a Ferris Wheel anyway? – maybe, just maybe her companion(s) in the carriage or gondola. But as about 90% of people take flash photos at night automatically, whether needed or appropriate, (just watch any big stadium event at night and one sees a multitude of flashes hundreds of feet from the action, even though it is lit by huge lights that simulate daylight), and I bet she saw the object and snapped it, the flash already charged.

    That it is out of focus could be due to the camera autofocus not being good enough to achieve it in the fraction of a second before the shutter operated, and the flash would have discharged completely, over-exposing severely. But the shutter speed was in-adequate (1/100th of a second approx) to stop the wing motion though, unless the wings just happened to be “at rest”, ie had flapped as far as they could and were about to change direction, right at the exposure moment, and I suggest the actual exposure of the object was by flash only, this being maybe1/1000th of a second, short enough to “freeze” the motion of the wings, and the ambient light below was sufficient for the ground exposure, while the shutter was still open.

    I think it is a moth, viewed from an angle beneath and in front of, the camera. How far away would have to be determined by guessing how big the moth was, I’d say the locals would have a better idea of that. No mention of a swarm of moths though, as they also hatch at the same time, and there would be many around. As they are seasonal, the locals would be aware of them. A poor season or it was it the first one?

    As for birds, I have seen flocks of them wheeling aroung the big lights at stadia and arenas, but they stick together, pigeons or seagulls from memory.

    The fact that the object was not discovered until the photos were being reviewed later, suggests that the object was small and not noticeable in the general low light at the top of the Wheel. The whole photo was of the fairground so the focus was probably at infinity anyway, but with sufficient light on the ground giving an acceptable exposure.

    But an angel? Since when does any creature have wings that are adaptions of arms, and still have arms? And where are the huge muscles required for flight? A casual look at an ordinary chicken as you demolish it at KFC will indicate that the main muscle is what we call the breast. I’ve never seen any statues or paintings of angels with huge oversized “chests”!

    Nah, it’s a moth.


  87. icemith

    Oops, forgot to change the last couple of lines in the first paragraph, as I had returned to look at the original photo, and realised it was a blow-up of the fairground shot. I think many others have only looked at that section only of the object. So I would have lost my bet! But the flash would still have been charged.


  88. I think she was snapping shots from the Ferris wheel. And as most novices do, she had the flash on. The winged critter would have remained invisible in its nocturnal flight, except that it was hit with a blast of light from the flash. The woman taking the shots would not have seen the critter before or after taking the shot.

    I’m liking the hummingbird speculation more and more. It seems she fired off a number of these high altitude shots and just the one has an “angel.”

    I also assume no malice or forethought on the photographer. No Photoshopping, and no intent to become an eBay hundred-aire by selling the shot.

    The reporter is the guiltiest party in this story. How is it that these blow-dry reporters who pride themselves on their duty to “inform the public” and “get to the bottom of a story” become marshmallows of credulity when these stories crop up.

    We had a “weeping statue” here in Sacramento last year and it led the local newscasts for a week.

    Turning lemons into lemonade: Local news can forever be relied upon as treasure-troves of object lessons in (lack of) critical thinking.

  89. ABR

    Dean Baird, thanks for posting the link to xenophilia.com — the photoshop exercise was logical and credible.

    Still, barring an actual specimen in hand (i.e., the one from the photo), there are a number of possibilities remaining: moth/hummingbird, bat, other type of bird, doctored photo, image of Winged Victory of Samothrace appearing on conveniently placed mist, fairy, angel…I may have ranked these in decreasing order of probability after the parsimonious moth/hummingbird guess. I throw bat in at a higher probability because I’ve had all three (sphingid moths, hummingbirds and bats) flit close to my head and not realize it at the time. It’s especially fun to have bats take bugs off your head while collecting said bugs or flyfishing.

    I also agree with your assessment on the photographer’s lack of guilt. Sturgeon’s Law applies to everything, but most especially local news shows.

    Speaking of parsimony…Melusine: thanks for sharing your photo. It’s difficult to photograph waterstriders like that. It appears as if you have two pairs in copuli (hope the dirty talk doesn’t get censored). In case you were curious, these are true bugs in the family Gerridae. These specimens belong to either the genus Gerris or to Aquarius, but I can’t see the characters. Going out on a (short) limb, I’d say they are the species Aquarius remigis (Say) which is found in all the contiguous states and then some.

  90. Melusine

    @ABR: I can assure you they had interesting characters. 😉 They were having a grand ‘ol time – I was watching them for a while. I’ve always liked waterstrider’s shadow patterns. Thanks for the added info.

  91. Funny thing is that you cant prove that is not an angel and that its a bird.

    at some point everything is taken on faith.

  92. Mark Martin


    It’s not an issue of “proving” that it was a bird or an insect rather than an angel. The question is, How necessary is it to interpret it as an angel? Is it incontrovertibly an angel? Or is it entirely consistent with other things we already know it can be, such as a bird or an insect?

    There’s nothing about the image in question which, as far as I’m concerned, mandates me to call it an angel. It looks tolerably close to either a bird or a bug, and I know empirically that such creatures can be found hanging about at the State Fair. I don’t take it on faith that it’s a bird or a bug. I am, however, justifiably confident that it is one of those things.

  93. Mungascr

    Its a UFO!

    Literally an unidentified flying object because we don’t know _exactly_ what it is .. & have therefore failed to identify it. Oh & it flies.

    Its probably a moth or bat or hummingbird or seagull or other type of bird.

    Its almost certainly 99.99999999999999999999999999999999999999999%
    NOT an alien or an angel or Hermes the Greek winged messenger god or any other such anthropocentric mythological creation.

    Personally I agree with the ‘Dogma’ * theory – Jesus was black & the only reason they let him into the Bible was that they couldn’t leave him out! Nobody knows what he or angels really look(ed) like for the reasons that 1) noproperdescriptionor photos were taken at the time & 2) they (almost certainly) exist only in our imaginations respectively.

    (* A 90’s era cult movie by the folks who brought us ‘Clarks’ – yep, Silent Bob & Jay were in it too. Has the BA reviewed that one?)

    Oh and flying dreams – love ’em! 😉 I’m usually running really fast then the ground just falls away and there I am – often moving in a sort of swimming motion. Sometiem sI jump and go, sometimes I’m just there .. eitehrway I wake up happy with some good memories and a longing for zero-gee or skydiving!

  94. skeptigirl

    There is some interesting over-interpretation of the evidence and incorrect facts in these replies. You can see the shape of the wings but without knowing the position and angle you are looking at, you can’t determine the actual shape with any certainty. While there is a notch in the wings and it is bilateral, I don’t think 4 wings are clearly visible.

    And Swintah Says, “Birds generally loathe night-flying”. But I have seen birds flying at night at the beach on many occasions.

    “I study the nocturnal flight calls of migrating birds….” (not me but this interviewee)

    And here’s a site on nocturnal birds. They are not all owls.

  95. Irishman

    merle jennings said:
    >Funny thing is that you cant prove that is not an angel and that its a bird.

    I can’t prove it’s not the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or Santa Claus either. I don’t have a LNM, BF, or SC specimen with which to compare, so I’m a bit at a loss.

    You fail to grasp the concept of “burden of proof”. Also “preponderance of evidence”.

  96. This is a month old so I am not sure if this has already made the rounds. I found it a funny (and purposfull) application of pareidolia — finding animals on underground maps: http://www.animalsontheunderground.com/

    In particular: http://www.animalsontheunderground.com/bird.html#

  97. skeptigirl

    That’s great, Scott!

  98. Aly

    Can’t someone just flatter themselves and say this could very possibly be an angel? It looks like one to me, and I’m not saying it is, I’m just saying that there are millions of people who are very religious, including myself who could think this could be an angel. Reality isnt’ the point here, it’s the fact that someone thought there was an angel. It shouldn’t be a crime and you guys are making it sound like one. There are times when its just plain dumb, and this isn’t the most obvious thing, but it could be.

  99. Fwee

    Okay, Aly, you just flattered yourself. Now go away.

  100. if I see something in a photograph, and it looks a little funny, my first reaction is to assume that I am seeing something ordinary in an unusual way.

    That’s funny, one of the things I like about photography is that it allows me to look at ordinary things in unusual ways (e.g., by zooming in on an oft-overlooked detail, or by framing the shot to draw attention to something other than the obvious).


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