Saturday, June 7, 2008

Thunderbirds over Western Pennsylvania

After reading the June 4, 2008 edition of Cryptomundo where Loren Coleman highlights the recent Thunderbird sightings in the Appalachians as reported by Stan Gordon, I reflected back to an incident that happened to me a few years ago in Western Pennsylvania.

I think I saw a Thunderbird myself in July of 2001

In 2000 I started working in a local graveyard in Erie County Pennsylvania. I had left association with Denominational churches a few years prior because of the many abuses of power and people that I had seen over the years. Eventually I started my own independent non-denominational organization called Open Gate Ministerial Services to offer services that you would normally find in a church to those who did not belong to any church or religious organization. As an ordained clergyman of a small fellowship that acted as a church I preformed Weddings, Funerals, Baptism/Dedications, and other services as needed to whomever needed them. But it didn't pay well. In fact I never asked for any fee, and lot of the time I never received one. But I liked that. It was very liberating. But I still had bills to pay and knowing that I went out into the workforce to support my family while still being able to minister to others through our organization.

I ended up working at the graveyard as a gravedigger. I started off as a salesman, but I couldn't make a sale for the life of me. I'm just not the salesman type- especially cemetery sales which is harder than most. But there was an opening in the maintenance department and it payed above the average wage at the time so I jumped at the chance. Most of the time it was pretty hard work. Digging graves and burying bodies. Then there were the disinternments, taking a body out of a grave to move it to another location-the less said about those experiences the better. But then during the summer months came the times we mowed the grounds and tended the greenery. I was usually assigned to mow the grounds during in the summer and it gave me ample time enjoy the outdoors and commune with nature.

It was one of those days in July of 2001 as I mowed the 23 acres of lawn between the mausoleum and the edge of the property dominated by a line of high tension wires that I saw something very odd. Obviously frightened by the sound of the mower, a gigantic bird had just launched out of the brush 25 yards to my right. If it wasn't so large I might not have noticed it. The gigantic wings beat the air with dynamic effort and the avian was aloft and soring over the brush and past the sprawling high tension wires and the pillar that supported them. The bird was absolutely humongous and as it past the support tower I noticed that it's wingspan as it reached it's crest ran very close to the length of the towers upper supporting beam. The creature quickly rose and then glided down past the treetops of the area where where we dumped the excess dirt from digging graves and soon slipped out of sight. It was strange, as a follower of all things Fortean I had heard of Thunderbirds since Elementary school but at this time I was betwixt amazement of what I had just encountered and actually comprehending what it was. As the realization of what I had just witnessed came to fruition upon my numbed mind I remember jumping off the mower and screaming "YES!" in jubilation. I wanted to drive my mower back to the dumping ground to see if I could by chance catch another look at the strange bird that I had just beheld, to verify my adulation. But I knew that if I did so my boss (who worked us all like the Marines he once served with in Vietnam) would be very irate. Anyway, the chances of actually finding the bird in the thick woods were going to be pretty slim. So restraining myself I went back to my mowing and glowed in the satisfaction of what I had just beheld.

But what had I just seen?

It was both similar to many large birds that I had seen in the area and yet very distinct. It looked downright primitive. It had no neck, a thin and very pointed beak and a long tail that ended with what looked to be a triangle. It was completely black or dark grey from head to tail with no visible markings on it except a small bulge of plumage under the neck that stuck close to the body.

Here is a rough sketch I made of what it looked like (the grey is added as a highlight, the right wing was also the same color).

Of all the workers in the field that day I was the only one to see it, which is no surprise since the others were scattered throughout the 90 acre property doing various assignments which gave no reason to look up into the sky.

After work I took my measuring tape to the tower and measured the length of the upper support beam by comparing it to the base which was the same length- 20 feet. So I estimated the wingspan of the creature to be anywhere from 15 to 17 feet in length. The only local bird that comes to anywhere near the size of the bird that I had just spotted was the Great Blue Heron. And to tell you the truth they do look similar in many ways. Here is a photo of one just for comparison courtesy of Eric Vaandering:

The wingspan of a Great Blue Heron runs 7 feet at the most. What I had just seen was at least twice that size. I had seen Herons quite frequently since a pair would often fly over our cemetery going to and from the various wet lands that encircled our property. In fact the year before when I first took the job, I had accidentally surprised one of the pair while it fished in the creek that ran by a military memorial. I was only five feet away as it suddenly jumped out of the water in fright and quickly flew off. I don't know who was more frightened by our close encounter though, seeing such a large bird pop out of nowhere was pretty unnerving. But the avian that I saw that July in 2001 was a giant compared to the Herons that inhabited our local woodland.

So with a possible Thunderbird sighting in hand I did what any good lover of the paranormal would do, I reported it. I sent a letter to Fortean Times and they published it in the August 2001 issue No. 148. Only later did I discover that there had been another Thunderbird sighting in June of that year only 50 miles south in Greenville Pa. The similarities between the two creatures are striking. Here is a description of the encounter as described by Stan Gordon in an October 1st 2001 posting at

June 13, 2001- "A resident of the town of Greenville, PA reported seeing a large bird the size of a small airplane from his living room. Greensville is a small town that lies near the border of Ohio and about half-way between Erie and Pittsburgh. The witness, Ray (Please note, the witnesses actual name is not used as he has asked for anonymity) upon futher inquiry during a phone interview on June 15, 2001, was able to flesh out the report as. Ray described the bird as fully feathered a dark brown or black color. The back of the wings was a grayish-black. The body was not bulky and the overall appearance was not like any bird he had ever seen. As the house lies near Little Shedango Stream and the house overlooks a small pond and woodlands, Ray was extremely familiar with the birds and other wildlife in the area including bald eagles, vultures and storks.

Ray stated that the bird flew in from the South at a distance of 200-300 yards from the window and landed on a large tree beside the small pond. As it flew in he saw a shadow first and thought it was an ultra light aircraft that are used in the area by some neighbors. The bird landed and remained on the tree for 15-20 minutes, and then took off again to the South. Ray estimated that the wingspan was equivalent to some of the ultra lights he has seen in the area, around 15 feet of wingspan and upwards of 5 feet of body size.
Was it the same creature? If not then it had to be of the same species.

I worked for the cemetery for five more years after this sighting and I never saw the creature again. But I was watching the skies for it, that was for sure.

I did see a lot of other strange things at Erie County Memorial Gardens in the years I worked there but nothing could compare to my chance encounter with this unknown cryptid. The encounter was breathtaking.

Until next time,

Pastor Swope


Anonymous said...

That sounds exactly like a blue heron. I saw one fly over my house in Ohio once and was certain it was a prehistoric creature or thunderbird. It had the weird triangle tail and the enormous wing span. A couple days later my sister was over and said "Look at the size of that blue heron!" It was the same "creature" I had seen. I felt really stupid then. They do look much different from below.

Pastor Swope said...

I too thought it might have been a Blue Heron, which is why I mentioned the similarities and posted a photo for comparison. However the size of the creature rules that out, and I am positive of the size since it past behind the towers upper beam and it's span came very close to the 20 foot length of the upper beam.

I saw our Blue Heron population very regularly and at the same angle on many times, and they were similar in some ways but very different in others. Such as size, color, placement of the neck to head while in flight and the 'tail'/feet.

It could be an as yet unknown species related to the Blue Heron or one that for some reason grew to phenomenal length. The similarities of the surrounding area of my sighting and the one in Greenville earlier that year (nearby abundant fresh water sources) point that the animal might be a wading fowl like the Heron.

cryptidsrus said...

Great post, Pastor Swope.

I post at Cryptomundo and Loren Coleman and others would love to hear from you over there.

You know what is frustrating? The lack of a camera at the RIGHT moment!!!

It that had been me, I would not have said---"Yes!!!," I would have peed in my pants. You're a better man than I am, Pastor.

It was unusual that the bird had "no neck." Usually, in previous sightings of Thunderbird-type creatures, the bird has a redddish-white ring around the neck.
You think it might be "supernatural"---as in "from another reality?"

Anyway, keep it up, Pastor Swope. You have made yourself a fan. Looking forward to your posts.

Anonymous said...

I tried to e-mail you but I believe it bounced back. If you have a moment, please e-mail me at

Anonymous said...

Most interesting. I too saw an extremely large bird a couple of years ago. I live on the outskirts of St Louis, MO and we have a good many eagles and hawks in the area. This particular day I was getting ready to go some place and had just put my camera equipment in the car when I happened to look up and see a very large bird flying over up the hill from our house. I say just up the hill but it was probably a good 200 yards away. At that kind of distance even a bald eagle is not going to be very big and this bird was HUGE.

As I said I'd just put my photo gear in the car and mounted on my camera was an extremely sharp, professional quality zoom lens; to be exact an 80-200/F2.8 Minolta Rokkor-X.

However, instead of grabbing the camera and taking a picture right there I decided to wait until I got out of our sub-division, which is in something of a valley right on the edge of the bluffs that drop down to the Missouri River flood plain. I knew that I would have a much better view of the bird as soon as I got out on the main road. Big mistake, I had a much better view but that bird was nowhere insight. Either it was flying much faster than I thought it was and dropped down over the edge of the bluffs, which from direction it was flying was a very good distance away, or it did what all good crypto-birds do. Just let us see them enough to tantalize us. Btw, Alton IL, with its Piasa Bird legend, is less than 20 miles as the crow flies from my house. Sightings of very large birds are not unknown in this area.

I learned that day when I see something out of the ordinary to take what pictures I can, immediately, then see if I can get closer or in position for a better shot. Unfortunately it has not made a reappearance though I have seen plenty of its smaller relatives.

novy said...

On Wednesday June 25th, at about 8:15 a.m. I saw what I first thought was a small airplane over the forest as I was traveling on Highway 70 between Somerset Pennsylvania and Washington PA. I then realized it was not a airplane, but a large white bird with a wingspan of at least 20 feet. Did anyone else see this. If so, please email me. Thank you. Novy

Anonymous said...

Comment for NOVY,, I'm not sure what I saw, but in June , 2008 I witnessed an extremely large creature flying in Clinton County, Pa. I flapped its wings slowly, and was very slow flying. I observed this thing for about 2~3 minutes, before it was out of sight. It was about 300 feet from the ground, about 1/4 miles away, and it was huge. This thing resembled a heron, but the size was twice what I have ever seen. A once in a lifetime sighting. SloFlyer

Anonymous said...

great post pastor... Well, if some of you really want to see birds you can go to the coast of india and some forest in Africa.. Capture it with your camera.. ^_^


Anonymous said...

I understand how huge you said it was, but your sketch looks remarkably similar to a jaeger. Being a Pennsylvania birder, I understand they aren't enormous birds, but you might want to look it up. They are oceanic gull-like birds, and are dark colored. They have long tails and beaks. They are known in PA as "Hurricane Birds" because they are almost always sighted after hurricanes or large storms (similar to thunderbirds). Because you live near Lake Erie, I suspect it is a Pomarine or Parasitic Jaeger. I am a strong believer in the thunderbird, and hope what you saw is one. I'm just suggesting another posibility. It could have been a Golden Eagle, a large, dark eagle.