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Mystery Moa Photo

Posted by: Loren Coleman on February 9th, 2007

Moas

A Moa? Please note the darker front part of the body is in shadow and the rear portion – with apparent feathers visible – is to the right, in sunlight.

Is the above a photograph of a living Moa? I interviewed the credible eyewitness and photographer, a former member of the British Army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS). Here’s the backstory.

In 1958, cryptozoologist Bernard Heuvelmans entitled a chapter of his On the Track of Unknown Animals, “The Moa, a Fossil That May Still Thrive.” Moas, both medium-sized and giant forms, have been reported periodically in New Zealand since their supposed extinction 500 years ago. Moas, flightless birds, are related to New Zealand’s kiwis, Australian emus, Australian and New Guinea cassowaries, African ostriches, and South American rheas.

bluemoa.jpg

The little blue moa.

Writing in the 1960s, cryptozoologist and zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson took note of continuing — albeit rare — sightings of moas on New Zealand’s South Island.

One of the most recent alleged sightings of a large moa took place on January 20, 1993, in the Craigieburn Range. Three individuals sighted and one of them photographed what they insisted was a six-foot-tall bird. They swore it was a moa, not an emu, ostrich, red deer, or any of the other expert-proposed or media-suggested animal candidates.

Paddy Freaney, current hotel owner and former instructor with the British Army’s elite Special Air Service, and his companions Sam Waby and Rochelle Rafferly were tramping — a New Zealand term for hiking in rugged terrain — in the Canterbury high country when they came upon a large bird. “The minute I saw it, I knew what it was,” Freaney said soon afterwards. “I believe it was a moa.”

It was about a meter off the ground, with a long, thin neck of another meter’s (three feet’s) length, ending in a small head and beak. It was covered in reddish-brown and gray feathers. The large, thick legs were covered with feathers almost to the knee joint, with bare legs below, and huge feet. (Interestingly, in his revised reconstruction of the moa based on descriptions of aboriginal sightings, Heuvelmans broke with the traditional bare-legged, ostrichlike drawings of what moas supposedly looked like and instead showed them with feathers down to their knees. Heuvelmans writes on this point: “There is no evidence that the moa did not have feathered legs like a Cochin hen and like the kiwi itself. Only the fast-running bird of the plains has any advantage in bare legs, and the moa was not one.”)

The large bird ran off across a stream when the witnesses disturbed it. An outdoor survival expert with the SAS, Freaney dashed after the animal and took a photograph of it at a distance of 35 to 40 meters. He also snapped a picture a minute later of what he thought was the bird’s wet footprint on a rock. He also took photographs of similar prints in shingle by the river bed.

The out-of-focus view of the bird has a rock formation obscuring its legs. From what can be seen, the moa appears to be medium brown, with a horizontal body, a tall, erect neck, and a head which may have been looking toward the camera. An image-processing group at the University of Canterbury’s electrical and electronic engineering department spent three days analyzing the blurred photograph.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Kevin Taylor said the analysis had gone as far as it could go, but in his judgment it confirmed that the object was a large bird. On the other hand, Richard Holdaway, a former University of Canterbury postgraduate zoology student and currently a palaeoecologist, stated flatly that the photograph showed a red deer. The neck was too thick for a bird’s, he said, adding, “When you look at it at a distance like that, to me it looks like a poor image of the back end of a red deer going west.”

After the Department of Conservation (DOC) backed away from its announced plan to search the area immediately, Freaney offered to mount an expedition himself, in some respects to clear his name after hoaxes charges circulated. Meantime, one expert’s claim that the sighted bird was an emu was rapidly laid to rest when all captive emus in New Zealand were accounted for by officialdom.

Australian emu

Australian emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)

But the damage had been done, discouraging the DOC from its launching a serious search. And time was running out for the collection of the verifying evidence. A week after the sighting, Freaney remarked that bad weather in the back country may have already eliminated some of the proofs of the moa, especially the prints in the shingle. “The river will have been in flood and that will wipe out some of the signs. It’s a shame DOC did not manage to investigate the sighting earlier,” he said.

I interviewed Freaney on February 22, 1993, to clarify some points of the report. Freaney said he had turned over the original negative for analysis, but apparently the New Zealand resources for computer enhancement were more limited than initially claimed. The results proved inconclusive. According to Freaney, the bird was definitely larger than any emu he has ever seen in Australia; the feathers looked darker in the shade but basically were light brown most of the time they were in the sun; and the feathers appeared to stop at the knees. He also said no investigator before me had expressed interest in the footprint photos.

Freaney said he soon grew dismayed by various “expert” attempts at debunking the account. These included a newspaperman’s slander about a nonexistent liars club and the related brief fale cllaim by a publicity seeker that the affair was a hoax. Freaney stood by his story, and he remained determined to find a living moa.

Paddy Freaney remarked: “This is a genuine claim…I am not seeking publicity.” Indeed, it was others who were trying to do exactly that. When word came out that the sighting might be a hoax, the person making that claim was tracked down. The jokester quickly retracted what he had said, noting he was merely trying to get publicity for himself and take it away from Freaney.

In discussions I had with Ian Roy, Director of Public Affairs, New Zealand Embassy in Washington D. C., it was rather clear that the New Zealand government was taking this moa incident seriously. Roy informed me he was “receiving daily dispatches on the matter, similar to how your State Department gets dispatches on important events.” He assured me that their analysis of the photograph “definitely shows that it is not a fake, not a cardboard cutout, or anything of that sort.”

When I interviewed Paddy Freaney in February 1993, he confirmed elements of the moa descriptions as given in the press. Freaney pointed out to me that

(1) the bird was definitely larger than any emu he has ever seen in Australia,

(2) the feathers looked darker in the shade, but basically were light brown most of the time they were in the sun,

(3) the feathers appeared to stop at the knees, and

(4) no one but this investigator had expressed any interest in the footprint photos.

Confirmation of the Freaney report surfaced months later when it was discovered two German trekkers in New Zealand had written in a hiking outpost’s logbook that they had seen a moa in the same general region as the earlier reports. German cryptozoologist Ulrich Magin’s found that the two Germans mentioned in the report had been in New Zealand at the time of their reported encounter.

In 1994, Freaney was contacted by a businessman on the North Island who was going to financially commit to an intensive, full-scale search for the moa. Freaney remained determined to find a living moa, and through the mid-1990s organized several mini-expeditions in an attempt to capture a live specimen (without a repeat of his chance encounter.)

Do moas still exist in New Zealand? Is one pictured above?

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


29 Responses to “Mystery Moa Photo”

  1. swnoel responds:

    Looks like a shadow to me.

    A Blobmoa… maybe

  2. fredfacker responds:

    Are the footprint photos available? That should at least clear up whether it was a deer or a bird.

  3. mjmurphy responds:

    Wrong shape. The text describes a long thin neck but the picture does not portray this at all.

    Also, is the red blob part of the body? Subtract that and it looks like the shadow of a perching raven (like thingie).

  4. shovethenos responds:

    Pretty indistinct but intriguing.

    I assume if you had copies of the footprint photos you would have posted them. Those would strengthen the case.

  5. Loren Coleman responds:

    I have never seen the footprint photos.

  6. DWA responds:

    Maybe we modern humans are all getting our moa renditions wrong.

    But that moasquatch looks nothing like a moa to me. (Takahe, maybe. Although I think the beak – if, um, that’s the beak – rules out takahe.)

    What’s in that photo sure doesn’t look like it’s six feet tall. One, maybe.

    As one who has tramped in NZ, I understand the word to simply mean what “backpacking” means in the US. That is, multi-day trekking, with overnight camping (or hut-hopping) in the backcountry.

    I know this guy is certainly qualified to know what he sees, at least ostensibly. But one must beware the “argument from authority” here. He’s not an ornithologist.

    That said: To much of this account, many would roll their eyes and say: “How convenient. This didn’t happen, that didn’t happen, one blurry photo. Isn’t it always.” But that really is the way one should expect it with cryptids. You have to get the followup; and the authorities have other things to do than go see what someone who’s not an ornithologist thinks was a moa.

  7. mystery_man responds:

    I am admittedly quite ignorant on the subject of the moa. Yet this photo does not seem to me to lend itself to being classified as one thing or the other. It is indistinct and could be a lot of things that the viewer wants it to be. I understand that good photos cannot always be taken in these kinds of circumstances, but this photo I don’t feel is something that is useful as evidence. I do not think that this guy is neccesarily dishonest, but this photo does not back up what he claims he saw in my opinion. I would not know anything of what a moa is supposed to look like by looking at this photo alone.

  8. sadisticgreen responds:

    I feel that saying the neck is too wide may be a little contrite. Many birds when agitated ruffle up their feathers in order to appear larger and therefor more imposing to the percieved threat. Surely if, as the witness stated, the moa was being chased it would be perfectly reasonable to presure it would be feeling threatened?
    Just my two pen’orth!

  9. Savage30L responds:

    The bird in the photo isn’t a moa. It appears to me to be a pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus), a large member of the gallinule family. They are common in New Zealand, and quite distinctive. I suspect the photo was deliberately made blurry in order to perpetrate a hoax.

    You can see a photo of one here.

    Compare it to the shape of the bird above.

  10. crypto_randz responds:

    It does seem to show a bird of some sort, however the size varies the picture is a little out of focus.

  11. Gihdora responds:

    the picture isn’t convincing to me, although I think the contemporary existence of Moas in NZ is probable… But then again, I’ve got an adventure-driven spirit (and I’m a biologist, go figure that), so who knows.

  12. YourPTR! responds:

    It is certainly an interesting photo and I’ve seen it before…but it is so out of focus it could be anything, including a “normal bird of normal size”. Neck also looks too short for a moa?

  13. U.T. Raptor responds:

    That picture could be anything, it’s too blurry to tell…

  14. I_M_NOT_A_Yarwen responds:

    A guy in an Emu suit? Maybe all the gorilla suits in Christchurch were booked and he only had this weekend for a hoax!

  15. simianfever responds:

    I’m beginning to think that if it wasn’t for vaseline smeared cameras there wouldn’t be anything for cryptozoologists and the curious to talk about.

  16. kittenz responds:

    I dunno. I’d like to believe it’s a moa; certainly I believe that relict populations of moas could exist. But the photo is too ambiguos and indistinct to tell much of anything about it.

  17. B.Scott Sutter responds:

    Great story. I was fortunate enough to spend about 30 days in new Zealand in 1994. Spent most of my time on the south island. It seems to me that a nervous (many feral cats about) breeding population of moa could still be out there for the same reason that a few dozen gigantopithecus could easily hide in the North American woods. The terrain is rugged and thickly forested. The climate, especially on the south island reminds me a lot of the northern California woods area where i grew up. Most of the pacific northwest, especially the coastal areas are covered with temperate rain forests. Very thick forested and brushy terrain. If you’re a few hundred yards off the highway in some areas you might as well be a hundred miles. Its that thick. Obviously, not the entire area but a substantial portion is good habitat for reclusive cryptos as most of you know who have taken time to venture out of New York City, or the university’s teacher’s lounge.

    Since New Zealand cryptozoology is the subject here, has anyone heard of the story of the man on the west coast of the south island that claimed to chase off the short hairy hominid masturbating in his back yard?

    Not joking here. I think the sighting took place in the mid eighties. I don’t mean to tell the story so much as so sincerely inquire as to whether anyone knows more of it?

    In ’94 I wasn’t really interested in cryptozoology, but I was curious about the unusual, like most who visit this site.

    So, while touring the south island making many stops including fox glacier (excellent stop), our tour bus (west coast express!- painted in psychadelic colors no less) stopped at a mom-and-pop type trinket shop with lots of newspaper articles posted on the walls. Everyone got off the bus to check it out, (I’m sure the bus driver/tour guide got a kick-back of some kind for bringing everyone in- his name was Sean- he looked like a giganto himself, about 6′-9 long tangly hair, and for some reason, he seemed to have total arrogant contempt for Americans and Germans. Whatever, I digress -sorry ;)

    Anyway, I don’t remember buying anything at this shop, but I read several newspaper articles on the wall of this shop. The only one that was interesting, described a strange encounter involving the purveyor of the shop. It described how he and his wife heard some noise in their back yard, behind their house?. (I think the house was behind their store) So, apparently the old man opens the back door and sees a short, hairy creature with a large “unit” masturbating! I think the newspaper article quoted the old man as chasing him off yelling something like “Get outta’ here you horny bastard!” Classic kiwi. You gotta love that one. I thought it was some kind of joke but still I made sure that I talked to the old man before the bus left and asked him if it was true, and he said something along the lines of “Yea…noooo. You think??” I suspected that he would tell me whatever I wanted to hear if I bought something.

    It was impossible for me to believe the article at the time. There just aren’t any mammals other than bats that are indigenous to New Zealand. So, primates are totally out of the question.

    More than 12 years later, the homoflorensis revelations seems to make stories like these a little more credible.

    Could it be that maybe the ancestors of the Mauri brought domesticated or naturalized homoflorensis hobbits with them to New Zealand. Or, could it be that maybe wacky (no pun intended) kiwi stories sell trinkets to tourists. Who knows.

    B.Scott Sutter

  18. mystery_man responds:

    I am curious if there are a lot of sightings of moas reported. My knowledge of birds is pretty feeble, but one of the other sightings mentioned in anther post here made moas seem almost as if they are somewhat docile and tame. Is there a large body of modern day sightings or is this a relatively unique case?

  19. calash responds:

    Blob, Blob, Blob, Blob. I’m sorry but I am sick to death of blurry images that could be this or that. Why only one photo? If I had an old Kodak 110 camera from the 1970″s I would have used up all the film I had. Something would have come out better then this. When visiting the back woods of Maine in the 1980″s I took pictures of Moose. I am not a photographer but at least there was no doubt of what the animal was. I am sorry to sound cynical and the person presenting the photos could have the best of honorable intentions but with all the new and inexpensive cameras today these type of images are getting more difficult to accept.
    Best regards

  20. YourPTR! responds:

    He only managed to get one photo as the animal had already started to flee by the time he could take a shot. It is just a shame it is so out of focus though, but we do know that the picture has been confirmed as definitely a bird of some sort. Moa sightings are very rare in New Zealand. I’ve only heard of this one, the other one mentioned on this site and another one which is considered as a probably hoax but there surely must have been more sightings! We are talking about a country approximately the size of the British Isles but with less than 5% of the population so there is plenty of space for them to exist. There are still vast areas of dense undisturbed forest so who knows? It certainly doesn’t apear all that unplausable that the Moa could still exist. If the Bigfoot can exist in North America, why not even the larger Moa species in New Zealand!

  21. YourPTR! responds:

    Unexplained Myseries has this to say about the Moa and modern day sightings:

    The main mysteries surrounding this bird is when did it become extinct, or if it is infact extinct. It seems generally accepted that the large species were supposed to have been extinct by the early 1800′s, and if not already extinct by then, they had become extremely scarce. However if is plausible that some of the smaller species, neglected as a food source because of their bigger relatives may have persisted longer.

    The mid to late 1800′s produced many reports of large birds witnessed in isolated areas of bush; this was an era of exploration, regions were being opened up for settlement. Many reports focused on the South Island, as gold prospectors and surveyors pushed into the isolated interior areas.One of the most curious reports of this period includes a confrontation between a sheep dog and a Moa, the Moa turned on the dog after being harassed, once the dog backed off, the Moa was witnessed to bob its head up and down in the direction of the dog in what seemed to be a possible threat posture.

    1931 and 1960 saw further reports of large birds in the bush of the South Island, in 1989 a pair of birds were observed by trampers, once more in the South Island.All accounts seemed to involve the large species of Moa.In 1990 there were several sightings of large Birds, in the Arthur’s Pass district, and tracks were found on two occasions.The most recent sighting caught World Media attention.On January 20th 1993 three companions were tramping the Craigieburn Rangearea, Paddy Freaney, Sam Waby and Rochelle Rafferty. Mr. Waby paused at a secluded stream for a drink; Paddy Freaney’s attention was drawn to a large bird which was nearby watching them. Freaney drew the attention of his associates to the bird, which then panicked and fled. Freaney chased the bird, with camera in hand, and at an approximated 35 meters got the now famous photo of the bird (above); he further discovered and photographed, after loosing sight of it, wet bird footprints on a rock.These pictures were shown to a Department of Conservation Officer who expressed the opinion that the bird seemed very much like Megapteryxdidinus, a sub-alpine species of moa known to have populated the South Island.

    Computer analysis was performed on the photo by Canterbury University,specialists at the University expressed the view that the photograph was of a genuine large bird and not some prop stage to look like one. Deer and other four footed animals were further ruled out. To add to the weight of evidence in support of the photograph being genuine,in the following year, 1994, a physician was tramping in exactly the same area the snapshot was taken; he came across browsing damage that was consistent with what is known of Moa feeding habits. In light of the corroborating evidence the Department of Conservation made no attempt to follow up on what certainly would have been the find of the century. Is the Moa extinct? Perhaps in some of New Zealand’s remote areas, and there are still a few,the species may still hold a tenuous grasp on existence. The sad fact is if it were to be discovered how simple it would be to conclude what was started in those Maori middens hundreds of years ago.

  22. youcantryreachingme responds:

    First thoughts a swamp hen. But I’ll have to give it more serious consideration at some time other than 3.04AM! :D

  23. DWA responds:

    Could be pukeko. Could be weka. Could be takahe.

    Could be a really neat paperweight.

    I see a lesson beginning to crystallize from some recent photo/video nonevents on Cryptomundo.

    I don’t care how excited you are; I don’t care how sure you are of what you saw; I don’t care how important it is for you to share.

    Maybe you shouldn’t share IF THE THING IN THE PHOTO CAN’T EVEN BE CLEARLY IDENTIFIED AS AN ANIMAL.

    Thank you.

    cc: Matt Moneymaker

  24. Mnynames responds:

    The picture isn’t very good evidence, but I’ve always found the photographer’s account quite persuasive. Still, sightings are few and far between, but then, I suppose the same could be said of people there to witness any potential Moa sightings.

    Not to recreate the old Thunderbird photograph flap, but I have a pretty vivid memory of having seen the footprint photo somewhere. Is my head just playing tricks with me, or did somebody, somewhere actually publish this pic? Perhaps Karl Shuker? I have a lot of his books, so that might explain where I saw it…just fishing for possibilities here.

  25. sschaper responds:

    I’m not sure what the crow-like thing in the center of the picture is, but the blobmoa is on the left-hand side of the frame.

    The Moa (moae?) if I recall correctly, were wiped out not by human hunting, but by small mammals brought to the islands by hunters, eating their eggs.

    That creates less hope, I’m afraid. But not none. The kiwi and the burrowing parrot managed to survive, barely in the case of the latter.

  26. mystery_man responds:

    YourPTR!- Thanks for posting that information on modern day sightings!

  27. Randlet responds:

    You could pronounce it like this “mow-ah” or “more-ah”, one story I’ve heard for the origin of this name is that when these bones were found by europeans they asked the Maori for “more bones” and after so many requests for “more bones” the Maori just started calling em “more-ah” bones. Don’t know if that’s for real but i like that story.

  28. Bruce Spittle responds:

    Your PTR! commented on 12 Feb that a pair of large birds was seen by trampers in the South Island in 1989 and that in 1990 several sightings of large birds were made in the Arthurs Pass area with tracks being seen on two occasions. Do you have a reference YourPTR! for these statements?

  29. Waitorengi responds:

    As a New Zealander, and an avid tramper (hiker), fisherman, naturalist etc, I can tell you there isn’t nearly as much “untouched wilderness” here as some tourists like to believe.

    Sure, Fiordland (south west tip of the South Island) is an amazing, isolated, dense rainforest … but thousands and thousands of people invade it every year. Many of them are ‘off-the-beaten-track’ trampers, hunters and fishermen.

    And yet (even) CLAIMED sightings of moa are more scarce than … well … moa teeth.

    The main reasons I can’t believe moa still exist, are the ubiquitious rodent/mustelid/brush-tailed posssum populations. Introduced stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats, mice and possums have worked their way through most of our bird population in the last 150years or so. Thankfully, SOME species were abled to be saved by human intervention.

    But any moa (population) that survived to the 19th century never received such intervention and, therefore, never really stood a chance.



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