White ravens are rare all over the world, so rare most people know them only as imaginary creatures in legends, myths, literature, or art. But, not on central Vancouver Island around the adjacent communities of Coombs, Hilliers, and Qualicum Beach. For about twenty years at least one or two white ravens have been born in the region almost every year. Last year one white and three blacks were born, and this year there were two whites and three blacks.
I first heard of the white ravens in the late 90’s from golfers at Morningstar golf course before I was interested in birding. I was hooked on birding in 2004 but never saw my first white raven until 2007 when a farmer called me to report two white ravens in his Hilliers farmyard. Next year I saw two whites with three black siblings at the Qualicum Beach ballfields behind the aptly named Ravensong Pool. In 2010 I saw another by itself in the Qualicum Beach works yard, and in 2011 another Hilliers farmer called to invite me to take pictures while he fed one white with three black siblings. I never saw or heard of any for the next few years until 2017 when I saw one fly over my house. In 2018 a resident in Coombs reported one white with three blacks and this year at another Coombs location two whites and three blacks were reported.
As mentioned, white ravens are rare, but since 2007 I have seen ten and there were definitely more that I hadn’t seen. The regular appearance of white ravens indicates that the absence of colour in these birds has a genetic origin that can be passed on from generation to generation. For this to happen the parent ravens must have the same genetic defect in their recessive genes. Since the chromosomes occur in pairs there is a one in four chance that the offspring will be white and two in four that the offspring will be carriers of the recessive gene. I was able to photograph nine of the white ravens and all of them were totally white except for light blue eyes. This suggests that the birds were leucistic instead of albinistic. Albinistic birds are unable to produce any melanin or pigment so they are white with pink eyes. Leucistic birds can produce melanin but the melanin is not placed in all parts of the body. The blue eyes of the white ravens indicate that they are leucistic instead of albinistic. Similarly, the Kermode Bears are leucistic and not albinistic.
The fate of the white ravens is a perplexing mystery. With at least twenty white ravens born over the past two decades one would assume there would be a considerable population of white ravens in the area, but there isn't. So, where are they? Have they dispersed to parts unknown, or have they all fallen prey to predators or illness? If they did disperse, surely there would be at least a few reports from other areas. If predation or acquired illness were a problem surely a few would have survived. Since 2007 I haven’t heard of any white ravens being seen from mid-December to late May, and all the white ravens I photographed were fleshy-gaped juveniles seen between May and October. My theory is that all the whites perish from the cold (hypothermia) because their feathers lack the strength and warmth of norrmal feathers. This theory is supported by the testimony of Gina Adams. Gina knew the Hilliers farmer who fed the white raven families for years. The ravens would come regularly, but by late November or December the white ones would disappear. So far, I have heard of two white raven carcasses that were discovered in separate years and locations in Hilliers.
A second mystery is the parents. Are the current parents the same as the early parents? It has been over twenty years since I first heard of the white ravens. It is generally accepted that ravens live about twenty years in the wild, but can they also produce young for all those years? That would be the easy answer since it is possible for ravens to live longer given that the Vancouver Island climate and abundance of food is conducive to survival and longevity. Furthermore, it is so extremely rare to have one set of parents with the same defective genes that a second set of similar parents seems impossible. However, the impossible appears to be reality. For several years in the early 2000’s the white raven parents nested on Gina’s property, and she even raised a white raven that had fallen out of the nest. According to Gina, the parents were all black. Fast forward to 2019. I was able to observe the parents twice and noticed that they had substantial patches of white on their undersides. Unless black raven feathers can turn white like my hair has, the current parents are a new pair.
Until further evidence is provided my theories on the fate of the white ravens and the identity of their parents will have to suffice. The mysteries and the ephemeral nature of the white ravens have actually heightened my fascination with them, and it has been a privilege to pursue, photograph, and share my images and knowledge with the world. Knowing that many artists, writers, and common folks have enjoyed, been inspired, utilized, and shared my photos has been gratifying and motivating for me to continue my interest in the white ravens and birds and nature in general. A few noteworthy examples follow.
Famous needle craft artist, Virginia Greaves, was inspired by the white raven to create an international award winning quilt titled "The White Raven" White Raven Quilt . Acclaimed writer and journalist, Tom Hawthorn, penned a full page article for the Globe and Mail White Ravens have Vancouver Island Birders Atwitter. Vancouver Sun feature writer, Randy Shore, produced a two page expose Rare White Raven Spotted on Vancouver Island . Noted radio host, Carol Off, broadcast a 15 minute live interview on the well-respected program AS IT HAPPENS. Online webmagazine "Reshareworthy published my history with the white ravens reaping over 500,000 likes Photographer Uncovers Rare White Ravens ... . And finally, if plagiarism is the sincerest form of compliment then image piracy was the ultimate compliment when a Polish photographer used my images to claim that he had photographed white ravens in a secret Polish location. Fortunately, he was exposed by internet users and forced to retract.
Two white ravens with three black siblings were born in 2019. They probably fledged around mid-May and became independent around mid-June. The two white ravens were reported separately from the family several times in July. One can only speculate if they were excluded or chose to be on their own.
Like the white ravens the juvenile black ravens also have a fleshy gape. One of the black siblings may have actually been brown.
The parents of this year's brood have a substantial amount of white on their undersides. According to Gina, the parents of earlier generatons apparently were all black.
With the exception of the Palm Warbler, Morningstar Pond was disappointing as far as spring warblers were concerned, but it was a good year for the variety of ducks.
May 31/19 - Since I was in the area I decided to check on the status of the Wood Duck family that I had seen a week earlier. I was happy to see that most of the brood had survived the predators. According to some visitors from Oregon, there was a second family that was down to one duckling.
On my last visit a male Redhead was the feature bird. Today it was the Blue-winged Teal. There were three males and one female in the group. There was no sign of the Redhead and the number of Ringed-necks was down to a couple. Blue-winged Teals are a relatively regular spring migrant, but visits are usually short-lived before they move east or north to their nesting grounds.
The yard was generally very busy during June and July highlighted by the appearance of more American Goldfinches than ever. Apparently, they were abundant all over the neighborhood. The norm has been one or two pairs, but this year it wasn't uncommon to see up to six males at and below the blackoil sunflower feeder. I assumed that there were just as many females, but most were too busy nest-building, and only one or two would appear at the same time..
Looking at the males, only the occasional one had a complete set of bright yellow feathers.
According to Bridget Stutchbury the brighter the colours on the male, the more attractive it is to the females. The brighter feathers correlate to the greater strength and health of the bird which is important for producing the strongest offspring to continue the species.
Water lover - The bird most frequently seen at the water bath was the Orange-crowned Warbler.
I'm not sure if the warbler just loved water, or if it was more conscious about hygiene that other birds.
The seed feeder was constantly busy. Most birds would patiently wait their turn, but the Red-breasted Nuthatches were fearless. They would dart in whenever they saw an opening. This one had second thoughts when it was confronted by the male Black-headed Grosbeak.
For awhile a flock of about six Band-tailed Pigeons would fly in to clean up any seds that were tossed out by the smaller birds. However, their numbers dropped suddenly until there was only one in mid-July. I suspect they found a better source of food elsewhere.
By far the most common bird in the yard from winter to mid-July was the Purple Finch. From the number of juveniles seen in the yard they must have enjoyed a very successful breeding year.
In the running for the most audible bird in the yard was the Hutton's Vireo. It would normally call all day while hidden in the thick foliage of the perimeter trees. It was a rare treat to see one at the water bath. It's distinctive call was heard all spring until about mid-July. So far there hasn't been any sign of the juveniles.
Another denizen of the tall perimeter firs was the Western Tanager. Like the Hutton's and the Black-headed Grosbeak its robust call was audible from late April to mid-July.
Like the female grosbeak the female tanager seemed to come for a drink less frequently than the male. Again, maybe she was a lot busier witht he domestic chores.
The juvenile Orange-crowned Warbler made frequent visits to the water bath around mid-June for about a week. I believe its parent was always close by during that time.
Those adorable little chickadees - The first broods of Chestnut-backed Chickadees materialized around mid-June, and they have been coming to the feeder non-stop since then. Unlike the nuthatches that store their food, the chickadees usually shelled the sunflower seeds from a nearby perch and ate them right away.
At times there would be two or more on the branch by the feeder begging for food.
Another youngster - I first saw the juvenile House Wren in the garden on a raspberry bush. It was posing beautifully in full view, but I couldn't do much with just a rake in my hand. I hurried into to get my camera, but it was too late. Two days later I saw the juvenile in the rhodo bush next to my house. I grabbed my camera and snuck out to the patio and waited. Eventually the juvenile worked its way around the corner but right behind a lavender flower. As it emrged from the shadow I got one shot before it disappeared back into the heart of the rhodo.
A late Townsend's Warbler showed up in my forest around June 7 singing regularly to claim its territory and invite any females. I'm not sure if it succeeded in finding a mate, but I didn't hear it again after a week.
July 18/19 - It has been several years since I was lucky enough to catch the juvenile Belted Kingfishers during their survival training at French Creek. I stopped regularly for the past two summers with no luck. This year I didn't make any special effort to find them, but would check only if I happened to be passing by. I'm glad I stopped on this occasion. At first I wasn't going to stay because there were already two vehicles parked at the kingfisher viewing spot. However, when I saw three kingfishers flying about, I had to stay. Rather than waiting where the cars were parked I walked up the trail and crossed the creek so the sun would be at my back. I was also in position to see the kingfishers as they flew up the creek towards me. The only downside was that I couldn't get close enough without spooking the birds so I had to settle for distant shots.
At first I saw three kingfishers, but by the time I was in position there were only two. They were moving from position to position quite regularly. - from the tall alders to the drainage ditch to the riverbank or trees upstream. It seemed to me that the adult female was trying to stay away from the juvenile, or was she just leading and the juvenile was following? This is the adult female with the complete orange breast band. The juvenile's is incomplete.
Here's the juvenile taking a break from chasing its mother.
I waited patiently knowing that they would soon approach towards me and land on the bank or log that stuck out of the water. This time it was the rocks on the bank of the creek. I quickly focussed on one of the approaching birds and tracked it until it was close enough. Notice the tiny feet (landing gear) as the it prpares to land.
Here we go again. Time to head downstream to look for lunch. I stayed with the kingfishers for about two hours then headed home. The next day I returned, but only saw one kingfisher. I didn't see it well enough to determine if it were the adult or juvenile. I suspect it was the juvenile. Its one or two days of survival traiing was over. It was now on its own - that's tough love.
JUNE 11/19 - Until 2014 the last recorded Silver-spotted Skipper (ssp. californicus) around Vancouver Island was June 13, 1913 on Savary Island. In 2014 Christian Groneau photographed a butterfly at his Cortes Island home. Three years later he showed it to Libby Avis who forwarded it to Cris Guppy for confirmation. It was, indeed, a Silver-spotted Skipper. In 2018 Barry Saxifrage discovered a pupa attached to a giant vetch plant in his yard. The pupa was raised by Christian and it turned out to be a Silver-spot. That confirmed that the Silver-spot was a breeding species on Cortes. The Silver-spotted Skipper on Cortes is assumed to be ssp. califorincus which is found nowhere else in Canada. Its population and viable habitat appears to be quite limited, and as such it must be considered an endangered species.
On June 11 we were wlcomed to Cortes by my good friends Nancy and Ray Kendall who toured us through their amazing garden full of improvisations to cope with the forces of nature such as the powerful winds that would blow over their plants and invading tree roots that would rob the plants of their moisture. After the tour we were treated to a table full of hearty snacks and a choice of beverages before they guided us to the home of Barry and Carrie Saxifrage where the Silver-spots were last seen. We had a beach walk then waited patiently while we ate our lunches and treats provided by friendly hosts. It didn't take long before a Silver-spot darted by then shortly later one landed on a nearby bush where it just sat not proving very good views. Then another flew in to a nearby blackberry bush and proceeeded to nectar on the blossoms. Click, click, click - we came, we saw, we photographed - mission accomplished. The 170 km journey to Cortes was an unqualified success thanks the Nancy, Ray, Carrie, Barry, Christian, and the Silver-spots
June 15/19 - When my friend, Mark Wynja, invited me to join him on a butterfly expedition to Mt. Cokely I couldn't refuse. Mt. Cokely is the best and most accessible butterfly habitat I know, and it had been several years since I had chased butterflies. I was anxious to see what species were flying compared to past expeditions.
It took me many trips back in 2013 and 14 to finally photograph a Western Sulphur. Today the first butterfly we saw was a Western Sulphur, and it obligingly posed for photos while mudding on the famous seep that crossed the road on the way up the mountain. I was happy with the photos on the seep, but the butterfly had a bonus in mind. It flew to a red clover to nectar and pose for a more colourful photo.
As it turned out many butterflies were flying and we had not trouble photo-documenting most of our discoveries. The only downside was the absence of the Rocky Mountain Apollo which is still on Mark's most wanted list.
Western Meadow Fritillary
One of the advantages of carrying my bird lens (500 mm with 1.4x converter) on butterfly excursions is the opportunity to photograph any birds I encountered as well as the butterflies. Mind you, the downside was lugging over 12 extra pounds of awkward gear (lens and tripod) instead of a hand-held macro lens. However, I had no regrets and enjoyed the photgraphing the few birds we encountered. The big miss was a Ruffed Grouse that we had pulled over to photograph on the road down. Unfortunately, before I could pull the trigger a pickup truck roared by and the grouse disappeared. The Ruffed Grouse is on my wish list to improve on the single photo that I have in my files.
While I was looking for a Common Branded Skipper at the base of the old ski lift Mark discovered a Fox Sparrow singing on territory. It was a bonus to see a Fox Sparrow during the summer.
Jul. 1/19 - On a butterfly excursion to Mt. Washington I stopped at one of the sanding station to check for butterflies. A few Hydaspe Fritillaries were flying but none were in the mood for nectaring or basking. As a consolation a pair of Warbling Vireos flitted back and forth on a couple of trees concerned about my presence.
Further up the road my wife spotted a female Sooty Grouse on the side of the road. When we stopped it wandered down in the roadside ditch. It was playing peek-a-boo through the grasses but didn't seem to alarmed with our presence.
We thought it might be staying around because it had some chicks stashed nearby. We didn't see any signs of the chicks and left after getting a few decent shots.
At the top of Mt. Washington we found the Great Arctic butterflies we were looking for then went down to the viewing stand to look for Arctic Blues. I think I saw one or two fly, but with the sun behind the clouds they quickly stopped flying. That's when a Hermit Thrush flew in and serenaded us with its beautiful song.
My poster is on display at: Victoria - Swan Lake Nature House. (Note: This poster has been produced in a more manageable size and is now available for $20 unlaminated and $32 laminated.)