By Dale Cooper
So, shifting away this week from the legend of thunderbirds toward actual reported sightings of the creatures, I started with the question: Where was the most recent, credible sighting reported?
I surveyed a few different paranormal and cryptozoology blogs looking for stories of thunderbird encounters, including www.monstertracker.com, www.unknown-creatures.com, www.paranormal.about.com and www.unexplained-mysteries.com. It appears that there have been regular sightings of thunderbirds across the U.S. up until at least 2010. The frequency of reports was surprising. There was at least one every two or three years that these different blogs considered noteworthy.
Unfortunately, these websites were generally light on substantial evidence to actually prove many of these stories. A lot of them were simply emails from random people who claimed to have seen a thunderbird, or they at least knew someone who had seen one. It is difficult to prove or discredit such stories. They certainly COULD have happened, but you really have to put a lot of faith in the person submitting them in order to believe what they are saying.
I’ve begun looking for evidence of thunderbird sightings in media, focusing in particular in local newspapers. One recent case I found, which occurred in Alaska, was very interesting.
In 2002, an Alaskan pilot flying a small passenger plane from the village of Manakotak to the village of Togiak reported seeing a large, raptor-like bird with a wingspan nearly equal to that of his airplane. An article in the Anchorage Daily News said the pilot, along with others in this plane who reported seeing the creature, described the bird as looking like something out of Jurassic Park. The article also stated that other people who live in the region had seen a similar creature more than once around the same time. Experts from the state specializing in large bird species sounded fairly baffled. Federal raptor specialist (I was unaware our government employed such people) Phil Schemf was quoted saying, “I’m certainly not aware of anything with a 14-foot wingspan that’s been alive for the last 100,000 years.” (Unfortunately, the Alaskan Daily News requires you to sign up for their online edition and pay a fee to access their archives. The text of the article I found here, and I'm pretty certain it's complete.)
Outside of the online paranormal world, the report does not seem to be taken seriously. Although, it is interesting to note that both CNN and Reuters picked up the story shortly after the Anchorage paper published it. There looks to be a consensus that these people in this rural region of Alaska really did see something. But what that something is, well, no one really looked into that.
I think a reasonable thing to do when exploring thunderbird sightings is to consider the possibility that people are really seeing massively large birds, but instead of these creatures being some undiscovered cryptids of mythical proportions, perhaps they are just species of known birds and witnesses are just vastly overstating their sizes and appearances.
I’ve found two different birds that have been identified as possible culprits for reported thunderbird sightings. One is the California condor (see photo above), a rather massive bird that inhabits portions of the American Southwest. A male condor has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, the largest such span found in any bird in North America.
Another potential known bird that may possibly be confused as a cryptid is the Steller’s sea eagle, which is native to Northeastern Asia and also can be found at times in areas of Alaska. The Anchorage Daily News article reported that the sea eagle is about 50 percent larger than an American bald eagle, and is one of the heaviest birds of prey known to exist.
All of these areas need some more research, and this does not really explain reports of thunderbirds that describe them as extremely massive creature (30-50 foot wingspans) resembling something more like a dinosaur or reptile than a large eagle.