Mystery Photo: A Thunderbird?

Posted by: Loren Coleman on August 31st, 2009

How about starting the week off with a mystery photograph?

Patrick Huyghe of The Anomalist recently received an intriguing picture. But Huyghe was traveling, and so he passed it along to me, for further investigation.

I did and find it worth posting here for reader feedback and opinions.

First, let me give a little background.


The individual who took the following iPhone image is a prominent company president. While I have his name on file, he shall remain nameless as he feels no need to have his very public life invaded with unwanted attention and inquiries.

Where? What?

His initial message, with the photo, detailed that he had seen this “over an apartment complex just outside Pittsburgh PA during a really weird storm.”

He continued: “I promise you this is an authentic untouched photo. If you look at the center slightly right and just below the cloud anomaly you can spot the thunderbird. It was a really weird cloud. Super dark but all clear to the right of the cloud and to the left. But the cloud was really dark and in a straight line as far as I could see in front of me and behind me. Never seen a cloud like it before or since. Never seen a bird that large either.”

As to the exact location for where this photograph was snapped, it is in the community of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, in Allegheny County. The photo was taken from the Wal-Mart parking lot on Route 88, which can be seen with a Rite-Aid in the foreground, in front of the housing complex.


Narrowing down the date when he took this, the photographer said this image was taken in July 2007, because he remembers it was one month after he got his iPhone in June 2007.

Why did he wait so long?

Apparently not following cryptozoology too much, the man said: “I couldn’t find anyone to send it to, but I didn’t spend that much time trying. Most sites I found had email that you couldn’t attach pictures to.”

Reading a story on The Anomalist, the casual photographer saw there was a contact email that would allow attachments. He decided to share the image, not making any extraordinary claims for it.

“I’m simply putting the photo out there. It was really far away but obviously large. I was photographing the storm and then thought I’d seen something. When I checked the photo, I noticed I captured something. Not sure I believe in thunderbirds but I know what they are supposed to be and it’s a cool picture,” said the businessman.

Here is the photograph:

Photo credit: Anomalist/Cryptomundo investigation, August 2009.

What is it? What would photographic analyses of the bird-like artifact show? What do you see in the image?

What does this photo and event tell us about Thunderbirds seen in thunderstorms? About the folklore associated with the storms? About what people feel? About what they think they see in them?

For more on encounters with large mystery birds, especially in America, including a thorough discussion of the frequent reports of Pennsylvania Thunderbirds, see:

Hall Thunderbirds

Mark A. Hall’s 2004 book, Thunderbirds: America’s Living Legends of Giant Birds, pictured above, has been joined by a hardbound edition in 2009.

Loren Coleman About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading living cryptozoologist. 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. He returned as an infrequent contributor beginning Halloween week of 2015. Coleman is the founder in 2003, and current director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

39 Responses to “Mystery Photo: A Thunderbird?”

  1. Tabitca responds:

    I think this may be the same person that left a comment on my site and I suggested The Anomalist.

    There seems to have been a rash of new Thunderbird sightings lately. I wonder if the weather makes them more likely to be seen?

  2. colpittsdragon2 responds:

    Perhaps I missed something, but is the “thunderbird” the top of a lamp post against the storm? I hope there’s something else…

  3. mystery_man responds:

    Hmm. I’m not sure what it is, but I’m of the mind that it is not any sort of huge bird. Zooming into the “creature” in question reveals that it appears fairly insubstantial, undefined, and wispy, with what seem to be patches where you can see through, which to me all indicate that it is not a solid object. It looks to me almost like an oddly shaped puff of smoke. It also almost looks as if the object follows the curve of the storm clouds, which makes me suspect it could be part of the main column we see in the distance.

    I wish the witness would divulge some more details on exactly what the bird did. What behaviors did it exhibit? Did it fly off into the distance or land somewhere? The witness says he thought he saw something and snapped a picture. Surely with a bird that large, you wouldn’t just think you saw something and then discover you ad caught it on film later. It would be very obviously a large bird flying along that you could track and maybe take more photos.

    I have to say, I’m doubtful that this was a thunderbird. Can’t say what it is for sure, but I’m inclined to think it was not a living thing.

    I’m actually more fascinated with the strange storm clouds we see here, with the veins of red tinge. Eerie and very cool.

  4. ghosted responds:

    That’s not a thunderbird, there may be some thunder rumbling from the storm but there is no bird. It’s just a two-bulb lamp. You can the see post directly below it the center of the lamps, or center of body if you think it’s a thunderbird. The brightness of the sky is cutting out the top of the post from the illumination of the light due to similar color and film exposure. Check out the other lamps in the parking lot, same structure; long dark post and two bulbs. For exmample, the lamp in front of the yellow building in the background.

  5. Vampere responds:

    Umm that’s just the top of the lamp post in the photograph…the piece that holds the two light bulbs which is also why there is such a bright light right below where the “thunderbird” is supposed to be

  6. CalebKitson responds:

    Definitely a lamp. There’s another one just like it farther away, visible above the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the photo.

  7. Quasigrue responds:

    I’d have to call it a lamp, there’s at least two others in the parking lot that appear clear enough to match.

    If anyone were in the area, this seems like it would be relatively easy to confirm whether or not a lamp stands in that spot.

  8. bmanimator responds:

    Definitely NOT a lamp post. Look carefully at the post underneath where the lights should be. The post stops well short of where the “bird” is. What is being seen is the illusion of the continuation of the post post due to the alignment of the apartment side and the tree above the roofline.

    Also, the post would be way too tall in relation to the surroundings. Not sure if it is a bird, but not a lamp post.

  9. JMonkey responds:

    Really cool picture on first glance, but I am going to have to concur on the lamp post theory. The reason you do not see the pole is because the bright lights have drowned it out. Had me going for about 3 seconds. Great for a set of debunking photos.

  10. Fhqwhgads responds:

    bmanimator: Notice how bright the sky is directly underneath the “thunderbird”. It would be easy for the bright light their to bleed over the pole and effectively erase it. Otherwise, why is there a pole there at all, since it would be holding up nothing?

    As for the lamp being too tall, I think you are assuming it is farther from the camera than it looks to me.

  11. tropicalwolf responds:

    Yawn…lamp post…moving on.

    Explains why he didn’t want his name published. Really, he held onto “this” for two years???

  12. Artist responds:

    GREAT SCOTT! There seem to be gigantic Thunderbirds, with wingspans of almost four feet, sitting atop every lamp pole in the parking lot! Come ON, guys – zoom in on the lamp pole on the far left of the pic, then on the others – there’s a “winged” shape on top of every one! Since the sun is low in the sky, that’s where the eerie red cloud lining comes from.

    Thanks to the photographer for submitting the photo, and let’s add it to our growing “Strange Images Taken In WalMart Parking Lots” file.

  13. praetorian responds:

    Definitely the top of a two-headed parking lot-style lamp post that has been turned on. These tend to be taller than street light poles in order to cover a broader area. The top portion of the pole has been washed-out by the light.

    What makes this one seem intriguing is that it was taken during the approach of a “weird” storm. Thunderbirds are allegedly seen at the forward edge of advancing storm systems (hence the name Thunderbird). The theory is that since advancing storms lift up and push a huge volume of insects ahead of them, a Thunderbird that positioned itself at the forward edge of a storm would find a feast.

    It’s interesting how something prosaic can seem extraordinary when viewed in a certain context.

  14. Valen responds:

    ” “Strange Images Taken In WalMart Parking Lots” file. ”
    Now THAT is frightening.

    Agreeing with most of the others, lamppost.

  15. snemmy responds:

    Unfortunately, just a lamp post.

    Knowing how light bleeds on my own iPhone photos, I pulled it into Photoshop and in a few seconds of messing with contrast you can see the bottom rim of the lamp post under the ‘wing’, very nearly forming the complete circle of the light holder, and an artifact of the bled out pole.

    Standing a few feet to the right would have put the light in front of the cloud and the would be no mystery.

    A+ for the awesome cloud photo though!

  16. MattBille responds:

    If you argue that the Thunderbird is NOT the top of the lamp-post, then you have to explain where the top of the lamp-post went to and why it’s not in the picture.

    It’s a cool weather pic, anyway.

  17. cryptidsrus responds:

    Interesting photograph, regardless of what it is.

  18. Jeremy_Wells responds:

    I think the really important part of this blog-post (considering it is obviously the lamp post, as many others have pointed out already) is what Loren wrote at the end:

    What does this photo and event tell us about Thunderbirds seen in thunderstorms? About the folklore associated with the storms? About what people feel? About what they think they see in them?

    I know the tendency here is to consider cryptids as though they were always flesh and blood animals. As a type of zoology, that should be one of the driving focuses of cryptozoology (that is, obtaining physical proof of flesh and blood creatures).

    But in the same way that we have legends of Raven, Coyote the Trickster, and the Spider Mother, there may be times that we spot something inexplicable and utilize the known (in this case, barely recollected legends of the Thunderbird) to explain that which is unknown. Its an element of the social sciences that simply can not be ignored when studying cryptids, but that needn’t diminish them any more than the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare need diminish the reality of flesh and blood terrapins and lagomorphs.

  19. Loren Coleman responds:

    High praise, indeed, to Jeremy Wells for being the only person, thusfar, to comment on a major point that needs to be considered with this photograph.

    Let us not get lost in the lamp posts, cryptids, and clouds, while we forget the spirit of the Thunderbird called forth by our Native brothers from thunderstorms such as this. There may be the hint of a folkloric and psychological process revealed in this photographed event which we may miss if we look too closely at the lamp and the lighting, and miss the thunder and the storm.

  20. Richard888 responds:


    When the picture is zoomed once, a couple of revealing details emerge.

    1) The shape has a low degree of artificiality (irregularities, asymmetries, fuzzy outline) that make it look very much unlike an engineered shape such as the top of a lamp post. So that interpretation should be dismissed.

    2) It is a segment of the cloud’s outline.

    Most likely explanation:
    A part of the cloud having different light absorption qualities (texture) making it look significantly darker than the rest of the cloud. Crypto-meteorology anyone?


  21. KristyBeast responds:

    A lamp post? That’s pretty sad. It seems pretty obvious to me that whatever the object is, it’s much too high in the sky to be a lamp post.
    It’s irritating when people choose the simple, obvious answer in situations like these, yet they don’t apply logic to what they’ve decided it definitely is.

  22. Fhqwhgads responds:


    The discussion of Native American legends and religion brings up a question I have seriously wondered about. Do you (and the other people who frequent and/or contribute to this blog) consider cryptozoology a sub-field of zoology, like ornithology or herpetology or palaeontology? Of do you consider it a separate but overlapping field? If so, do you consider it a science (in the traditional, Western sense), or is it something broader?

  23. davidanaxagoras responds:

    The photo doesn’t tell us anything about Thunderbirds but it does tell us a lot about mobile phone photography and lamp posts.

    That’s right. Lamp. Post.

    And I find it hilarious that KristyBeast is irritated “when people choose the simple, obvious answer”. As opposed to making up elaborate mythologies to explain things that aren’t there?

  24. DNS responds:

    Lamp post. As noted, easy to check.

    If the link doesn’t work, just go to Google and search maps for the Bethel Park Wal Mart, which is on Library Road, which is Rt 88 I think, too. The photo was apparently taken from right in front of the Wal Mart, with the Wendy’s sign visible in between the Hollywood Video store and the Rite Aid. The cars in the foreground are parked in handicap spaces, so they are not far from the front door of the Wal Mart. One can see the red letterting of the Giant Eagle sign reflected in the car windows. Note the light poles. Google Street View is a little scary at times. Fortunately, the Google van went past our house right after we had mowed the lawn. 🙂

  25. Spinach Village responds:

    Kristy, I would generally agree with you, Your point is very, very relevant on most days here at cryptomundo, IMHO …

    The shape is bird/ pterosaur like, but if you zoom out, it can be seen, that it is indeed a lamp post

    Some of the post that show up here are painfully irritating to read. On many days, I have felt what you felt. Good science is not being a skeptic for the sake of being a skeptic. Technically good science looks at all the evidence objectively.

    Sometimes we have to adjust our world view and our theories. Bad scientist tend to have great difficulty in adjusting.

  26. praetorian responds:


    Whether or not you consider Cryptozoology a science, it still benefits from scientific methods of reasoning. One of those is the principle of Okham’s Razor. It says that if two competing theories are equal in other respects you should choose the one that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest unknowns while still adequately answering the question.

    It is irritating when people refuse to even consider more exotic explanations for things. Cynics use Okham to bash paranormal claims all the time, but they usually don’t apply it correctly. Okham wants you to go with the simplest explanation that makes sense. He doesn’t exclude the paranormal, he just says you should take a look at the more prosaic theories first. If none of those make any sense you’re free to move on.

    In this case, I think you can adequately identify the object in the photograph as a light pole before having to move into the territory of something more extraordinary.

  27. Artist responds:

    Thanks, Valen, for catching my subtle quip.

  28. DNS responds:

    Some interesting things going on here. I like the comments about science, particularly the recent ones from Spinach Village and praetorian, which speak directly to the kinds of situations we find on this blog. It is also something of a relief that the photo was taken precisely where the photographer said it was. We get taken on so many rides these days with such photos…

    Maybe this belongs on Loren’s Twilight Language blog, but I thought the “Giant Eagle” name was interesting, especially since it is not readable on the car windows, but unmistakable after looking at the Google Street View images. It reminds me of something I read long ago, about a psychic being tested back in the Sixties or thereabouts. The test was done by having people provide sealed envelopes with drawings or photos or whatever inside, then giving them to the psychic one at a time to see if he could tell what was inside. He was doing pretty well, but decided one envelope had something about cars or car wheels inside, or something like that, when the envelope contained a newspaper story about penguins or something, I don’t recall what. Anyway, on the back of the clipping was part of an advertisement for a tire store. Hmmm.

  29. Jeremy_Wells responds:

    In regards to the “is it really a lamppost?” controversy, I would have to say that some reading on perspective is due for folks who assert that it is “too tall”. Posts closer to the camera are, naturally, going to appear “taller” in a 2D image.

    Back on how a raven is like a writing desk… errrr, a thunderbird is like lamppost, I invite everyone to go here and, before reading the article, decide to yourself what the picture is.

    Are we seeing some weird meteorological phenomenon (like the “floating city” illusion)?
    Are see seeing a stream of water with the opposite peaks reflected at the “top” of the image?
    Look at it, let your mind fill in the details, then read the article and find out what it is you are looking at.

    I was looking for a good article on how the mind fills in details, but all I could find was this, which is a pretty good visual example of how easily an image can fool the brain.

    For instance, I’ve been convinced that I’ve spotted various critters in the woods before, sat down and gotten comfortable, kept my eyes on them, waiting for movement to betray them, only to find a couple of minutes later, when my eyes come into better focus or the sun rises higher in the sky, that I’ve been stalking an oddly shaped stump or branch. I don’t give myself too much grief for these mistakes. Squirrels, after all, will “hide” when spooked by flattening themselves against a tree or branch, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to spot movement that then freezes, and to watch it until it relaxes and starts moving again. But the point is, my mind decides on what an object should be, and the mind then begins to fill in the details that can’t be seen.

    Now, in real life I will know after a couple minutes observation that it isn’t moving. If this individual had spotted his “thunderbird” through the viewfinder of his camera, he might have noticed pretty quickly that it wasn’t moving and written it off. However because he didn’t spot the image until he reviewed the photos later, and because the glow of the lights had the effect of washing out the area immediately beneath them, obscuring the top of the post, his mind was able to fill in the “missing details”. The curved edges of the lamp around the lights become wings. And then a bunch of scofftics have a laugh at the “silly believers” arguing that it can’t possibly be what it, indeed is. A lamp.

  30. larrykat responds:

    It follows the outline of the cloud so perfectly I would have to agree with the “cloud with different diffraction ratio theory” instead of the “lamp post” theory. I must say some of the condescending tones on these responses are very dismaying. Here is a guy who took a cool picture and obviously doesn’t hang out in cryptozoo blogs and he gets slagged?

  31. planettom responds:

    Studying the photo, I too agree that it appears to be the top of the lamp post. Now, I wonder is it possible for another photo to be taken of the same area for comparison sans the thunderstorm.

  32. praetorian responds:


    Looking beyond the occasionally dismissive tone, I think threads like this one really do stick it in the eye of cynics who say crypto-enthusiasts are dreamers who see what they want to see, incapable of objective reasoning, gullible, immediately jump to paranormal conclusions, and terrible observers with a poor sense of size and range.

    When a photo like this gets posted here it normally doesn’t take long for a well-informed majority opinion to gel regarding what it shows. Recently, I remember the same thing happening with the red Ogopogo vs. windsurfer thread.

    Everyone has different standards of proof and opinions, but in the end things seem to shake-out pretty well here at Cryptomundo. It’s a real contrast to the ugliness and ignorance that shows up in other forums.

  33. vingogly responds:

    Guys – it’s the top of the lamppost beneath it, and it “stops short” because the light behind the post is saturating the iPhone’s camera. Absolutely nothing weird involved with this photo. The lamppost is about two rows of cars back, meaning it’s a perfectly normal sized lamppost and not “too high” in the sky to be a lamppost. The shape of the top is indeed very regular; any irregularities are due to the angle of the post, and the quality of the iPhone’s camera (not good in the early models). It is indeed an engineered shape: compare the left and right sides, which are identical.

    If cryptozoology is a science, personal feelings, irritation, spiritual beliefs, and plain old desire for an outcome should have nothing to do with the outcome of an investigation. When I was a kid, I saw faces in the burled wood headboard on my bed, and in the clothing hung on the bedpost. There were no faces there: only shapes being interpreted by a brain that evolved to be really great at finding faces in things. We are great at finding bird shapes too, because two million years ago identifying a raptor in the distance was critical for survival.

    And if cryptozoology is not a science, then you all might as well believe whatever it pleases you to believe because ultimately, the truth is what you want it to be.

  34. alanborky responds:

    It’s a bat.

  35. alcalde responds:

    Everyone’s missing the really anomalous thing here… that a prominent company president shops at Wal-Mart.

  36. Richard888 responds:

    Yes, Kristy. Even “I” now think it’s the top of a lamp post. Because its outline is misty I thought it was part of the cloud…

  37. BFilmFan responds:

    Perhaps he is president of a company that sells a lot of product at Walmart?

    Jeff Foxwothy shops at Walmart and so do a lot of other wealthy, frugal people.

    Now move out of that parking spot starin’ at that light pole ‘fore this Georgia hillbilly runs ya over with his Mercedes…. : – )

  38. panthera atrox responds:

    No question about it, it’s the lamp post.

  39. mungofoot responds:

    ok have seen this pic before and read all the comments here and I must admit at first glance it seems to be a lamp post .but then I saw that DNS had posted a link from google streets of the same location and decided to take a look.I was able to pan around and get nearly the same angle of the apartments and the RITEAID in the original photo but there were some big differences. 1st of all the RITEAID is sitting on the corner of a big intersection and it is very clear on google that there are several stoplights there but no stoplights are visible in the foreground of the original pic and that seems strange to me since it was dark and you would think the stoplights whether red green or yellow would show up.That however may be explained away by the angle of the shot however the big thing that stands out to me is that none of the lamp posts visible in the google shot are shaped anything like the image in the original photo, now you might contend that since the pics were viewing the same area at different times that maybe they got changed out and this is a valid point but the other thing to note is that you can see the pole in both shots that is alledgedly the lamp post I say allegedly because in the google shot it is perfectly clear that it’s not a lamp post but a telephone pole that never had a lamp, It is in the same exact spot as the “lamp post” in the original pic, I am not sure what to make of it but I would love for somebody else to take a look at the 2 views and hear their ideas

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