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White ravens have Vancouver Island birders atwitter Add to ...

O raven, you clever trickster, you bold scavenger, you brainiac of the avian world.

When we approach, you barely deign to acknowledge our presence, an insouciance not often seen in the natural world. You mock our superiority, you saucy bird.

Even the myth makers know not what to make of you. Did you create the world? Or are you a harbinger of its end?

Did you bring light to the world, thus condemned to be covered in dark feathers?

Blackness is an essence of the raven.

No wonder Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the horror tale, took your name as the title of a dark story of lost love.

So shiny and black are the feathers of a raven that Hollywood starlets are inevitably described as “raven-haired beauties.”

If their name is a synonym for black, then what are we to make of a white raven?

Mike Yip, a 66-year-old retired school teacher, heard reports of a sighting in the Qualicum Beach area. Armed with nothing more deadly than a Nikon D300 and his own curiosity, he went in pursuit of an elusive quarry.

Mr. Yip was born in Duncan to a sawmill worker. He graduated with a science degree from the University of British Columbia in the centennial year. To his surprise, he wound up spending his working life in a classroom, teaching math and English at elementary, middle, secondary and alternative schools. The final quarter century of his career was spent in Parksville.

He put aside his chalk in 2001, planning to spend his days on the golf course. But a chance encounter two years later changed his life.

“I came across a strange duck that I’d never seen before,” he said. “I spent two hours watching that duck trying to figure out what it was. I went home and got my old camera. From then on I just wanted to find every bird around and get as good a picture as I could.”

A silent afternoon spent in a swamp with a northern shoveler, an odd-looking duck known for its spoon-shaped bill, turned a retiree into a birder.

He posted online his photographic portraits. He then invested $25,000 to self-publish 3,000 copies of a hardbound, full-colour book with the unexciting but informative title of Vancouver Island Birds. It sold out and has since been reprinted. Last year, he released Volume 3 in a lavish series.

Poetry is found in the names of Vancouver Island’s residents – warbling vireo and chipping sparrow; hairy woodpecker and willow flycatcher; northern flicker and Western wood-pewee; belted kingfisher and orange-crowned warbler; red-breasted sapsucker and black-headed grosbeak and chestnut-backed chickadee.

Sometimes, the Pacific winds bring with them an unexpected visitor.

“Because birds have wings you get all kinds of strange ones on the Island,” he said.

Birders recently made a pilgrimage to Tofino to pursue a bristle-thighed curlew, an Asian shorebird that was a vagrant far beyond its range.

In seeking the white raven, Mr. Yip left his home at Nanoose Bay for the familiar woods at Qualicum Beach.

“Lo and behold,” he said, “the first place I looked.

“I heard a raven. Then I heard another. The second one was the adult. It landed on a tree. A few seconds later a white one flew in.”

He fired off several shots of the blue-eyed and white-feathered bird.

“It’s a jaw-dropping thing. You’re just in awe. It’s such an unusual and marvellous sight. Exciting.”

He has now seen five white ravens at Qualicum in the past three years.

The birds are thought to be leucistic and not albino, the result of a genetic defect producing chicks lacking normal pigmentation.

Other sightings around the globe are rare. Eight years ago, one was spotted at Fairbanks, Alaska. (The University of Alaska Museum has a collection of 18,000 ravens, only one of which is white.) Three years ago, an abandoned trio of starving chicks was spotted in a nest at a churchyard in County Durham, England. They were taken to an animal rescue shelter where they were named Tic, Tac and Toe.

Mr. Yip playfully declares Qualicum to be the White Raven Capital of the World.

An earlier report of white ravens led to an exchange with the artist Roy Henry Vickers, who received from Mr. Yip a set of photographic prints of birds of spiritual significance to some.

Far-away birders wonder whether the white ravens are a hoax, Photoshopped rather than a natural wonder.

They’re for real, magnificent in their rarity and somewhat bracing in their presence. Some tales have the sighting of a white raven foretelling the end of the world.

Special to The Globe and Mail

 

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