Photo: Right:Teratorn, left, Pteranodon. Both Possibles from witness descriptions.
Loch Ness has its monster. Does San Antonio have one, too?
Strange sightings of a huge flying creature have been reported as recently as six months ago. Is it a monster or myth?
Giant Flying Creatures in Las Cruces, N.M. (July 19, 2007)
Myths and legends about creatures from the Chupacabra to the Jersey Devil to Bigfoot are everywhere, but in southern New Mexico and parts of Texas people say they've seen birds so big they seem prehistoric.
One man claims the rugged landscape near Las Cruces hides a mystery that's haunted him for years.
Dave Zander has lived near the Doña Ana Mountains for more than 30 years spending almost all his spare time hiking, exploring and fossil hunting in the range between the Robledo and Organ mountains.
He saw something that he's unable to explain and many people find hard to believe.
He recalls the day nine years ago when he spotted something extraordinary: two creatures perched on a mountain less than a mile away.
"Not a normal bird, definitely of a giant variety," Zander continued. ""It makes you feel like it could come over and carry you off if it wanted to."
Zander witness a real-life scene out of the movie Jurassic Park?
One ancient bird in the vicinity is an Andean condor living at the Rio Grande Zoo in Albuquerque. But it's wingspan of 12 feet pales to what Zander described: birds with an unprecedented twenty-foot wingspan, with pink bald heads and all-black bodies, and feathers on their enormous wings.
There is nothing on modern record like it.
Guadalupe Cantu III was busy working his newspaper route, but he says the big news of that day 10 years ago flew right over his car. He says he's seen what most have not an unidentified flying object, one that still scares him.
"We were afraid that it would come at us. So we stayed in the car till it passed this way," witness Guadalupe Cantu III said.
"This thing's all feathers, all black. Much bigger than me. It looked at us. It had very stooped-up shoulders."
The beast has been spotted from the Rio Grande Valley to the mountains of New Mexico.
"(It) looked like what was possibly two people standing on top of a mountain up there," said David Zander, who saw the monster in New Mexico. "Something that big ... I guess it kinda makes you feel like it could come over and carry you off if it wanted to."
San Antonio's Ken Gerhard has written a book on these dark birds as big as planes, with wingspans from 15 to 20 feet. Native Americans called them thunderbirds: depicted in their art, their flapping wings were said to cause explosive noises.
"What's interesting is that the reports of these giant, raptor-like birds do continue into modern times," said Gerhard, a cryptozoologist. Cryptozoology is the study of and search for legendary animals to prove their existence.
He says there's solid evidence something is overhead. "I believe there's a good chance that a lot of large, prehistoric animals, if you will, remain undiscovered by modern science," he said.
So what could the giant birds be? Some witness sketches eerily resemble prehistoric creatures, like the pteronadon of 160 million years ago.
However, Gerhard theorizes it could be a creature that's a little less extinct if that's possible a pteratorn. "These are the surviving ancestors of modern condors and vultures. They lived up until 6,000 years ago, we know for sure, in parts of North America," Gerhard said. "In fact, over 100 specimens have been recovered from the La Brea tar pits in California."
But critics have another take: human error.
"Was it really as big as he thought it was?" asks Ben Radford, editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" magazine. "When there's enough information to come to a determination, I've always found an explanation for it."
Radford says the eye can be deceived.
"Eyewitness testimony is very unreliable. And so it's hard for a person to tell even experts to tell 'Is that thing I'm seeing out there, is it small and nearby? Or is it huge and farther away?' " Radford said.
But in one sighting in San Antonio, three people gave similar accounts, witnessing the same fly-by of a huge, winged creature.
A trio of South Side teachers traveling a deserted road had their cars "buzzed" by the monsters, and it made the papers in February 1976.
In fact, for decades papers throughout South Texas have chronicled the flying creatures. In the age of the Internet, the reports continue, like this one from a recent sighting near Huebner and Babcock roads.
"The creature was large, at least 6 feet," the report reads. "I don't know if I ever want to see another one." "If I were outside there walking, it would've gone after me," witness Cantu said.
Cantu believes most sightings go unreported because people are afraid of the ridicule they could face.
However, he says a face-to-face encounter with the creature would be much worse. "I think if you do see it, then you might wind up missing," Cantu said.
"In comparison a 20 foot wingspan would truly be a monster and something undocumented by science," cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard said. "I believe what Dave Zander may have seen are surviving teratorns."
Gerhard has made a career studying prehistoric birds. "What's interesting the reports of these giant raptor-like birds to continue into modern times," he said. "We seem to have a large concentration of them here in the Southwest particularly in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas as well as New Mexico and parts of Arizona." Gerhard documented many of these strange reports from all over the globe in the book "Big birds! Modern sightings of flying monsters."
The book includes sightings in different clusters over the past 30 years.
In 1972 in Maxwell in northeastern New Mexico, Ronald Monteleone of Trinidad, Colo., reported what he thought was a pterodactyl flying out of an arroyo.
In Lordsburg in the 1800s locals talked constantly about the sightings of pterosaurs. And a picture circulated the country in 1890 out of Tombstone, Ariz., but it's never been considered totally legitimate.
"Other eyewitnesses are describing specifically giant feathered dark birds with an enormous wing span," Gerhard said.
Gerhard said his research falls into two different descriptions from witnesses. Some said the birds look like the prehistoric pterodactyl while others, like the creatures described by Zander, resemble the ancient thunderbird from Native American mythology.
You can find thunderbird images atop many totem poles and also carved into the lava rocks of the Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque. Similar images are found in petroglyphs all over North America.
According to legend, the thunderbird is said to have a wingspan the length of two canoes with the ability to deafen people with the sound of its flapping wings.
"It is definitely a real animal, according to the native peoples that lived here," Gerhard said. "It's not necessarily a legendary animal."
However a word of caution comes from folks like Ben Radford, managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which applies scientific reason and evidence to extraordinary claims.
"There is a desire to link modern sightings with these Native American stories but the problem is they're not necessarily the same thing," Radford said.
Radford said believes the eyewitnesses saw something: "Ultimately a lot of these sightings, whether it's these monsters, these creatures, Chupacabras, what have you, these come down to eyewitness testimony," Radford said. "They're stories, there's nothing wrong with stories, but they're just not good evidence."
Radford has debunked numerous stories about the Loch Ness monster, crop circles and Bigfoot.
He said he relies on evidence.
"You don't have bones, teeth," he continued. "You don't have any hard evidence, so you look to these stories, you look to these myths.
"We know from many scientific experiments people are notoriously unreliable about estimating things." And in this case, Radford said he thinks Zander and the other witnesses in Texas overestimated the birds' size.
What makes the reports intriguing is that most experts agree scientists have yet to discover every species on the planet and really have no idea what is out there: "I believe there's a good chance that a number of large prehistoric animals remain undiscovered by modern science." Gerhard said.
Radford readily concedes there are species yet to be discovered, but... "Do I think there are giant animals and birds and creatures out there?" he said. "No."
For his part, Zander continues to keep his eyes on the skies but hasn't had a repeat visit from the creatures. The one experience has stayed with him.
"I feel honored to have seen the one sighting," he said. "I had if they're still up there still living up there and thriving, I say awesome, more power to them."
Today's KRQE.com Web question asked, "Do you think there are prehistoric species still roaming the earth?" Sixty-four percent of respondents said yes; 36 percent said no.: