Thunderbird Sighting in Virginia

BY STACY G.

On Wednesdays, May 22, 2013, I was driving west on New Kent Highway (in New Kent, Virginia) just before Rt. 106 at around 8:30 a.m. I was driving under the speed limit and I came around a bend and slowed down even more because about 30 yards ahead of the car a HUGE bird was in the center of the road, straddling the dotted line with its back to me.

We have all kinds of big birds in our area: bald eagles, ospreys, herons, turkey vultures, all kinds of hawks, wild turkeys, several kinds of geese, etc., so seeing a big bird in the road is no real surprise.

What made me stop the car 12 feet away from it was the fact the dang thing's head was taller than my hood!

I could feel myself starting to grin that grin we do when we just cannot believe what we are seeing and suspect a joke... when it opened its wings. I won't tell you what I said then (just use your imagination). I was on a two-lane country road with gravel shoulders. This thing's wingtips were touching gravel on both sides! With two slow-motion swoops, it was up and blotting out everything else in my windshield, banked left on a wingtip (literally completely vertical with a full view with the whole back of its body), and glided into the woods between the trees.

I have no idea how long I sat there in the middle of the road with my mouth open, totally blank, mentally, feeling like I had been slapped silly. The only word that surfaced was: "thunderbird!"

Now, like most American kids, I had heard of thunderbirds, but honestly, I had never given a single thought as to what they would look like.

But that was the word that surfaced. When I finally cruised past where it had cut through the woods, you can believe I was looking for it. No sign.

I immediately called the Man, feeling silly and not mentioning what I thought it was, and asked what bird in Virginia had a 15-foot wingspan. (I wasn't brave enough to tell him it was more like 20 feet.) He said none.

The California condor, but none here. To his credit, he didn't try to tell me I hadn't seen what I was describing, merely suggested that it may have seemed bigger than it really was due to proximity.

But here's the thing.... My beloved grandfather was a mountain man, a lifelong hunter, and naturalist. He would take us camping my whole childhood, teaching us about wildlife from up close. He taught me how to estimate an animal's size from surrounding markers. And you can't get more specific than a road-span.

So what the heck did I see? It was dark colored, looked a dark charcoal color while on the road, but its feathers were a rusty red-brown when it launched into the sunlight. Its tail was a long triangle, like a hawk's, its wings... its wings.... Let me just say, its wings were just unbelievable. I had a hard time looking at both at the same time, I had to look from one to the other. They weren't shaped like a hawk's, more like a seagull's, if you can picture it. Its body was torpedo shaped, no neck to speak of, and a flat head. Due to the angle, I didn't see its face or beak, and when I could see it bank, I was honestly trying to take in the wings and couldn't tell you anything about the shape of the head in flight.

The impression I got of the legs were "short and stubby." I didn't see the feet.

It's been sitting there in the back of my mind, bugging the hell out of me. What was it? I've been trying to talk myself out of having seen it. I didn't try to look it up, because that would make it "real". Does that make sense? Tonight, I finally decided to try a search on line: "largest bird in Virginia," "wingspans of Virginia birds..." -- those kinds of searches. Nothing to match.

The Man finally said, "Search thunderbird." Feeling sheepish, I did. Every description of "modern" thunderbird sightings sounds like what I saw. Go ahead, laugh. I don't blame you. You weren't there. A week ago, I would have done the same.

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