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Avian passion fuels Nanoose Bay birder’s never-ending retirement project

A fascination with a strange-looking duck 15 years ago sent Mike Yip on a long and incredible flight path to expert photographer, author and birder.
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Photographer Mike Yip has published a new guidebook on Vancouver Island Birds. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A fascination with a strange-looking duck 15 years ago sent Mike Yip on a long and incredible flight path to expert photographer, author and birder.

Although the retired school teacher says he is none of the above, his vault of images, published material and reputation in the avian world suggest otherwise.

Since that encounter with a northern shoveler in 2004 near his Nanoose Bay home, Yip has amassed thousands of images and self-published seven books on birds and nature on Vancouver Island. He’s considered a go-to guy for amateur and expert birders because if it eats, flies or nests on the Island, Yip has likely observed and photographed it.

Yip’s latest effort, A Beginner’s Guide to Common Vancouver Island Birds, is a glossy look at 240 species of birds seen here on a regular basis. There have been about 440 species documented over the years on the Island, but Yip only focuses on the regulars, calling the rest occasional visitors or even “vagrants” — those that have been spotted only once, such as the black-throated blue warbler.

It’s not an expert guide, Yip admits. It’s coffee-table size and is meant for people looking for photos and basic information on everything from owls and eagles to songbirds and shorebirds.

But he knows his birds, their habits and where to find them.

Who knew there were 14 species of gulls, most only separated by subtle differences in plumage?

Or that osprey pairs can raise generations of new chicks from the same nest? Yip stops regularly to view a mating pair atop a light standard near a log sort at Ladysmith.

Most bald eagles on the Island migrate to their favourite salmon streams farther north in early May, but many pairs nesting in the Bowser-Hornby-Denman area stay, feasting on Midshipman fish that populate tide pools.

Yip has compiled an impressive catalogue of birds and behaviours in habitats around the Island on his VancouverIslandbirds.com website, where he is always updating his hundreds of journal entries and notes.

“It really started as a pastime,” says Yip, who taught math and English to middle grades during his teaching career. “But then I started to think: ‘What do I do with all this information?’

“I started to share as much as I could, and to educate people on birds. I wanted to give something back to the birds and show people we should take care of them. We are all part of the ecosystem.”

Yip starting providing workshops in continuing education programs on the mid-Island, and found interest in bird watching was so popular, there were waiting lists to watch his slide shows and listen to his talks.

He started to self-publish his own books, writing, designing and photographing each one on his own. Yip says he’s sold more than 12,000 copies of his first six books, which is impressive considering his small market area of the mid-Island, and the fact he does his own marketing and distribution when he isn’t out birding or trying to improve his golf game.

He said about 75 per cent of the books he sells are north of Duncan, but he hopes to expand into Victoria. His latest book is now being sold at Bolen Books, Munro’s and Tanner’s Books.

Most of the people who buy the books are in rural areas, said Yip, who thinks that’s because they are closer to nature.

But lately, he’s seeing a shift.

The pandemic has brought more people outdoors, he said, and they are taking their children.

“In March, I met a birder in Nanaimo who told me to bring my butterfly book,” said Yip, whose Vancouver Island Butterflies was published in 2014. “He brought his children, ages 10 and 13, and he was home-schooling them. He was birding and going out into nature every day, so COVID was the thing that got his kids really interested in nature.

“It was amazing to watch them find butterflies and birds. They really had fun and enjoyed it.”

Yip said teaching young people to care about nature is one of his great motivators.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words to one person, then it’s worth many, many more when you share it.”

Yip has many intriguing bird stories and several favourite species, but the most interesting are the rare white ravens that have been nesting in Qualicum Beach for several generations.

The pure-white birds are not albinos, but have a condition known as leucism, where natural pigments in the feathers are severely diluted. Yip has photographed the birds since 2017.

They typically lay up to five eggs each season. Yip believes the mating pair on the central Island have been producing between two and three white ravens a year, along with traditional black ravens.

It isn’t clear how old the mating pair might be, or if there are other pairs with the recessive gene.

Yip believes the white ravens don’t live long in the wild. “Otherwise, I think we would see a lot more of them around over the past several years,” he said. “If they are flying to other areas, there would be sightings.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com