Northern Flickers—The Story of the Shot

By Joe Van Os on Jun 20, 2013

Finding a photogenic woodpecker nest cavity is always a nice early summer photo treat in North America. And probably no woodpecker nest is easier to find than the ubiquitous northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).

When looking for nest cavities of any species it is always better to search in “open woods” where you have room to move around for the best shooting angle. In open areas you can also spot the birds for some distance from the nest—to be prepared for their arrival and brief visits to feed chicks at the nest hole. In dense forest you may need to shoot almost straight up at the cavity to attain the only (usually bad) shooting angle.

northern-flicker-joe-van-os1.jpg

The nest in this image was in an open aspen grove, mid-June, and had probably been occupied by the flickers for about a month.  As far as I could tell there were four chicks in the nest—two males and two females by their sexually dimorphic plumage—and they had at least another one and a half weeks to go before fledging.

I visited the nest almost daily for a week, spending several hours a day gradually getting closer to the nest as the birds acclimated to a human presence. To compound the acclimation process, I also discovered an American robin nest in an adjacent tree—the bird also had to get used to someone standing around within 30 feet while she incubated eggs. So it was a slow process to avoid overly disturbing all of them.

My goal was to photograph the male as he came to the nest to feed the young—particularly with some of the chicks with their heads sticking out of the hole. Like most woodpeckers, the male is more colorful than the female and, to me, makes a more photogenic subject. The male and female brought food to the nest at about 20-minute intervals and, unfortunately, most of the time they clung to the trunk by the hole and stuck their heads deep in the cavity to feed the chicks. Occasionally they would emerge with a fecal sac for disposal away from the nest. Believe me it is possible to tire of shooting a woodpecker’s butt sticking out of a hole in a tree!

Most days, the sky was milky white and this bright highlight to the left of the tree trunk was very distracting. Fortunately, I could line up a skinny gray tree with a few green leaves just on the left to block the white sky for a more even tone to the image.

With patience, there were several opportunities over the latter part of the week to shoot the nest with chick heads protruding. I actually got nicer compositions of the female and chicks but the male, with his red mustache, is flashier!

The shot was made with a Canon 1DX and an 800mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter at ISO 800 at f/11. Aside from minor dust spotting, this image has not been cleaned-up or altered other than being converted, to my liking, from a RAW file.

The ideal light for shooting a woodpecker nest cavity has a somewhat limited daily duration due to the Sun’s angle. While on the road I met a former trip participant and told him where he could find these woodpeckers. “When would it be best to shoot them?” he asked. “Ten to one.” I told him. He was amazed at my precision!