DENVER - The National Weather Service at Boulder posed a bit of a mystery Tuesday afternoon - they posted GIF images of something quickly engulfing the Denver metro area on radar.
At first, they thought it might be a bunch of birds heading south for the winter:
"Look what's flying into Denver!" they wrote. "Radar from last hour showing what we believe to be birds. Any bird experts know what kind? #ornithology"
The weather service's Twitter question generated quite the response:
Jeff Wells, whose Twitter bio says he's a bird conservationist, pointed out to NWS that very few birds actually migrate in the daytime; most do so at night.
Someone tried to say it was insects, but NWS shot that down, saying insects are normally more dispersed than the radar image.
A producer from 11Alive sister station KUSA even reached out - and NWS doubled-down on the bird thing, adding that no expert had been able to figure out the breed.
Then someone pointed out that the radar image showed the mystery flock moving north-northwest - birds would be going south.
Then people started arguing for the butterfly theory saying that they'd seen tons of them around lately and it would make sense.
"Could it be butterflies?" asked Brett Perry. "Butterflies EVERYWHERE in #Denver !"
Could it be butterflies? Butterflies EVERYWHERE in #Denver !— Brett Perry (@brettperry_) October 4, 2017
Just before noon that day, NWS tweeted four more times, confirming that it was, indeed, butterflies showing up on radar.
Another Twitter user explained that the butterflies were attempting to fly southwest but were being pushed to the northwest by strong headwinds on Tuesday.
So why was NWS so sure it was birds?
"Things with big wings need to fly together in the same direction with the wind to generate that signature in ZDR (see the image attached to this story)," NWS wrote on Twitter. "Insects rarely produce such a coherent radar signature. Migrating birds do all the time."
There you have it; NWS was going off examples they've seen probably hundreds of times.
As for the butterflies, NWS said they haven't created any similar image since then and are instead staying low to the ground.
1/4: We believe migrating butterflies are the cause of yesterdays radar signature. Thanks for all the reports and sightings! #cowx— NWS Boulder (@NWSBoulder) October 4, 2017