Just days before Halloween in October, 2002, reports of an Alaskan 'monster' began making the rounds in a number of major media outlets. While this was no monster of the silver screen, descriptions of the creature nonetheless sounded as if it belonged there; it was almost like something right out of a scene from Jurassic Park.
And to this day, the identity of this massive flying 'monster' remains a mystery.
The villages of Togiak and Manokotak are located little more than 30 miles apart, on the southern shores of Alaska to the east of the Bering Sea. For centuries, legends about giant monsters have emanated from this part of the world, ranging from the tales of Sasquatch in the remote wilds of the Pacific Northwest, to accounts of massive skeletons discovered in caves along Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
But what occurred in October of 2002, while seemingly the stuff of legend, involved multiple eyewitness observations of a massive, flying creature, too large to have been any known species existing today.
Reports first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News about a massive bird, described as being "the size of a small airplane", which was seen over the aforementioned villages. Residents in that region estimated the bird's wingspan as being nearly 14 feet.
According to 43-year-old Moses Coupchiak, one of the principal witnesses, "At first I thought it was one of those old-time Otter planes.... Instead of continuing toward me, it banked to the left, and that's when I noticed it wasn't a plane."
Reuters reported that news outlets in Alaska, speaking with ornithologists, found little skepticism about the sightings, though the size estimates seemed impossible. Phil Schemf, cited as a federal raptor specialist located in Juneau, said there hadn't been any kind of bird that large "that's been alive for the last 100,000 years."
The extinct Pelagornis sandersi, fossils of which were first unearthed at the Charleston International Airport in Charleston, South Carolina in 1983, is recognized as the largest bird ever to have existed. Its wingspan was said to reach as much as 24 feet, which is roughly double that of any known species today.
At the time of Coupchiak's observation, he had been concerned enough about the monstrous bird that he radioed to the village nearby, alerting officials about what he had seen, and advising that children be kept indoors.
The Coupchiak sighting hadn't been the only observation of this massive bird. Shortly afterward, John Bouker, a pilot who was flying his plane over southern Alaska, said that he and a group of others in his plane with him also saw the creature.
"[The bird is] huge, he's huge, he's really, really big," Bouker told reporters in 2002. He and his company said they observed the creature from an approximate distance of 1000 feet, noting that he had heard similar reports beforehand, doubting the size of the creature.
"You wouldn't want to have your children out," Bouker said, echoing Coupchiak's earlier concerns about the apparent monster.
Wildlife experts suggested that the bird Coupchiak and the others had seen may have been a Stellar's sea eagle, which populate northeastern Asia. This species can have a wingspan of up to 8.5 feet, a little more than half the estimated wingspan of the 'mystery' bird seen near Togiak and Manokotak in 2002.
Over the years, similar reports of massive birds have stemmed from other parts of the United States, with notable groups of sightings (or "flaps", as it were... no pun intended) occurring in Illinois during the 1940s, and again in 1977. On July 25, 1977, a group of boys were playing in a residential area near Lawndale, Illinois, at approximately 9 PM. Suddenly, one of the boys was purportedly carried aloft by a massive bird, and carried a short distance before being dropped on the ground. The boy was relatively unharmed, and it was suggested, based on descriptions that included a light-colored ring around its neck, that the bird might have been an Andean Condor.
Could there be an even larger species than those suggested by experts, and if so, how could something so large, particularly an animal possessing a 14-foot-wingspan, remain hidden... even in a region as remote as southern Alaska? Will evidence of such a creature one day finally confirm the sightings made by Coupchiak and several others, and cause us to reconsider the known avian species populating our planet today?