Best of the Tetons

Northern Flicker Male

A Northern Flicker Journal : 2016

Photos and Updates for a Nesting Flicker Family

Flicker NestNorthern Flickers are possibly of the most beautiful year round birds you’ll see in Jackson Hole. They are seen regularly in most areas of Grand Teton National Park, however they are seldom easy to photograph. Park regulations require visitors and photographers to stay back 25 yards from an active nest, so “legal” images of a nesting pair would require a hefty lens and probably some generous cropping.

Having a nesting pair in my own back yard is a dream come true. I keep my fingers crossed, hoping the pair stays with their new nest and eventually fledges three or more babies this Spring. The page below documents my experience this year. It will be ongoing until the last chick leaves the nest. Of course, I know that any day I could look out and not see them again.

The Flickers of 2016:

I’ve had false alarms before. A pair of Flickers pecked around on a few of my tree stumps, getting my hopes up, but they didn’t stay around. A few years ago, I found plans for a building a Flicker nesting box and built one. I mounted it at the correct height, and I filled it with clean sawdust well before they were ready to make a nest—they like to excavate their own nesting cavity.  One morning, I found all of the sawdust on the ground, but it apparently didn’t fit their fancy and moved on. This year, things are different! The pair of Northern Fickers picked a fresh spot in my decaying old aspen trunk and began pecking a hole.

Female Flicker

April 8, 2016: This is the first day I felt the pair was serious. The two took turns, but the female did most of the initial work in the hard outer shell of the trunk.

Norther Flicker Nest Building

April 19, 2016: 11 days later, the two had excavated a fairly large opening and cavity. During the period, I tried to stay out of the back yard as much as possible. After pecking a while, the birds would gather a pile of debris and scatter it into the wind.


April 20, 2016: By this date, the pair created an opening large enough to enter and disappear completely. I took this image from inside the blind at close range.

Flicker Cleanout

April 20, 2016: Males are easily identified by the orange patches under their cheeks. Once the female created the initial opening, the male became very active “cleaning out the garage”. He almost always closed his eyes as they tossed out the debris.

Back Yard Setup

Back Yard Setup: This shot might be of interest. It shows the large tree trunk about 10 feet on the other side of my blind.  I had just set it up a few days prior to the Flickers showing up. Perfect timing! The male is perched just outside the cavity.This image also shows the large Flicker nesting box at the top of the same tree trunk. The birds picked a perfect location for this years nest, too! It is at a good height and faces due west. They fly into the nest perpendicular to my camera when set up on the deck—and with a beautiful natural background. The willow trees will be fully green by the time the babies fledge, and they will be facing the afternoon light as they poke their heads out of the nest.

Flicker Pecking

April 20, 2016: After filling a few cards with Flickers at the nest, inside the nest, and excavating the nest, I knew it was time to start experimenting. This image was taken on a cloudy day, which gave me a chance to adjust the shutter speed. This one was taken at 1/25th second, allowing the male’s head to blur as he pecked away. Interestingly, they didn’t perform this “high speed” pecking often. Most were slow, calculated pecks. To get the slow shutter speed, I had to stop down to F/14, which began to bring some of the distant branches into focus more than I had preferred. I removed a couple of branches on the other side of the creek and changed angles slightly for a more pleasing background.

Flicker Approach

April 20, 2016: Flight experimentation begins! This is not a great shot at all, but it gave me a starting point for trying capture a Flicker landing at the nest. My original settings were 1/1250th second at F/8. I initially thought I might need a fair amount of depth of field and I thought 1/1250th second was fast enough to stop most action. I took this image from inside the blind at close range. In most cases, the female flew in from below, so I set up in “portrait” orientation.

I had lots of issues (problems) to work out!

The male originally swooped in from below like the female, but as the nest got deeper, he began to come in more often directly into the opening. I changed to “landscape” orientation. I moved out of the blind and set up a tripod on the deck. To get the best angle, I had to stretch it across the hot tub cover. Later, I extended the front leg to the ground and moved it to the front corner of the hot tub.

Flickers at Nest

April 20, 2016: The Flickers were quite active on the 20th, so I had a lot of chances to start fine tune the settings. By the time I made this capture, I had bumped the shutter speed up to 1/2500th second. The male was inside at the time, showing its bill as the female flew in.

Flicker Sequence

April 20, 2016: By this sequence, I changed the shutter speed to 1/4000th second at F/9. They had too much background clutter, but I was beginning to freeze the wings.

Final Approach

April 20, 2016: This is the third image in the sequence above. As I looked over the images that night, I decided I would try a few more changes the next day.

Northern Flicker

April 21, 2016: At 1/5000th second and F/5.6, I was able to freeze more of the action and blur out some of the background clutter.

Male Northern Flicker

April 22, 2016: After capturing a few sharp images, I upped the challenge! Being unpredictable wild animals, I had originally pulled back on the zoom to have more chances to get them in the frame as they approached the hole. It worked fine, but it always meant cropping out much of the unneeded space. The challenge turned out to be tougher than I had hoped. When zoomed in tight, I ended up cutting off some of the wings on numerous images. I eventually opened the field of view back up some.

Flicker Approach Sequence

April 23, 2016: The male Flicker often swooped in from behind the tree. In most cases, only the final frame or two were in focus.

The Approach

April 23, 2016: Still at 1/5000th of a second, I began to get more picky. At a slightly compromised focal length, I began to get the shots I had hoped to capture.

Shooting Comments: Back when I was inside the blind, I had two cameras set up at different times. I was using a Nikon D5 and a Nikon 200-500mm lens for the initial still and action shots. Right beside that setup, I added a Nikon D810 and Tamron 150-600 to capture some of the perched images. The shot of the tripod and blind was taken with a Nikon D4 and Nikon 28-300mm lens. I also shot a few images with the Nikon D4 and a Nikon 200-400mm lens from inside the blind. Once set up outside the blind, I triggered the D5 with a Vello RFN-4s (radio frequency) remote. It allowed me to sit in a chair inside the house and click away as a bird approached the cavity.

14 Frames Per Second: The new Nikon D5 can focus and capture images at 12 frames per second. That sounds like a lot! However, when zoomed into the approach zone, an entering Flicker is only in the frame for a split second. In other words, during an approach, I could press the shutter for a full second and get 12 captures, but the bird moves through the area so fast, I seldom got more than two frames with a bird in it  A D5 has a 14 frames per second feature which comes in handy for this kind of shoot. The catch….? When in 14 FPS, it does not continue to auto focus and adjust the exposure. For this particular shoot, that’s not a problem at all. I focused on the bottom of the opening and then turned off the auto focus. I suppose someone could eventually learn to time the optimum single image if they had enough chances, but I found the extra FPS a help.

Flicker Tossing Pulp

April 26, 2016: The male Northern Flicker spends much its time in the nest pecking away and tossing chunks of aspen pulp. D5 and Nikon 200-500mm lens.


April 27, 2016: Each day, I see the pair mating on a regular basis in the willow tree on the other side of the creek. They have continued to excavate the nest, but I have been consciously staying out of the yard to give them time to finish mating and lay the eggs. The female has always been very skittish, while the male is generally tolerant of me pulling cards and changing focus on the camera.

Northern Flicker Male

April 30, 2016: At some point, there is a level of redundancy in the shots. I now only download the best of the flight shots to my computer. The female is spending more time in the nest, but as of today, I don’t believe she has laid her first eggs. Nest building has slowed and flights to the nest are less common. I took this image today with the same settings as the last few successful captures.

You can read more about Northern Flickers on Audubon’s site. The page says the female lays 5-8 eggs and take roughly 11-16 days to hatch. Chicks leave the nest roughly four weeks after hatching. Males help with incubating the eggs.

Female Flicker

May 3, 2016: The back yard Northern Flicker nest seems to remain active. The female flew back to the nesting cavity when she saw a Magpie entering the area. D5 and Nikon 200-500mm lens.

Male Flicker

May 9, 2016: Over the past week, the Flicker pair has been in the nest regularly. The male spends most of the time in the nest in the daytime right now. This one was taken with a Nikon D810 and Tamron 150-600mm lens from a slightly different angle. I usually have my D5 and 200-500mm set up with a remote trigger for the flight shots. They are not leaving the nest often now, seemingly preferring to hunker down inside the nest than flee, so flights are less frequent.

Northern Flicker

May 16, 2016:  The pair of Northern Flickers have been active at the nest. Today I saw the pair fend off a Red Squirrel. It would make a great behavioral series if I can ever capture the action. I am almost certain there are eggs and possibly chicks in the nest. I watched the female get some suet from a feeder and immediately go to the cavity. The male stays in the nest more than the female right now.

Male Northern Flicker

May 17, 2016:  The back yard is turning green now. One of the two parents are in the nest almost all the time now and are quick to return if they are spooked.


May 22nd, 2016: The pair of flickers are still active. I was pretty sure I could hear the babies yesterday while the female was preparing to enter the cavity. One of the pair usually signals they are ready to switch places, as seen in this photo.

Flicker Exchange

May 24, 2016: Another change of places for the Flicker pair.

Lost Chick

May 26, 2016: Sad day. This afternoon, the male left the nest with a broken egg.


May 27, 2016:

Starling Nearby

May 29.2016: I continue to watch and photograph a pair of Northern Flickers.  When other large birds, like Ravens, Crows or Magpies are in the area, he simply retreats into the nesting cavity. When I see this behavior by the male, I know there is a Starling nearby.

Landing Flicker

May 31, 2016: The two parents are occasionally out of the nest now, but it appears one stays fairly close.

Flicker 200June 7, 2016: It has been a week since the last entry. Not much has changed—not that I can actually see anyway. Every day, I expect to see a few little beaks at the entrance, begging for food. The parents are spending more time out of the nest, but one of them is usually close by. I can often hear their distinctive calls, even if I don’t actually see them.

June 12 Approach

June 12, 2016: Today, the female Flicker came back to feed the babies by regurgitation food. Instead of going into the cavity, she fed the babies from outside the tree.

Feeding Female

At 1/160th second, you can see her vibrating to feed the little ones. This is the first time I could absolutely hear the chicks in the cavity as she was feeding them.

Male Landing

June 12, 2016

Male at the Cavity

June 12, 2016

First Flicker Chick

June 13, 2016: First Flicker Chick! Today is the first time I’ve actually seen any part of a chick. You can read more about Northern Flickers on Audubon’s site. The page says there should be between 5 and 8 eggs. One egg was carried off by the male on May 26th, so there could be between 4 and 7 chicks.

Protective Flicker

June 14, 2016: Protective Flicker: I’ve watched this little Red Squirrel spook birds off feeders on many occasions. Today, she was apparently too close to the Flicker’s nest and was attacked by the male. The squirrel scampered off quickly with this shape approaching it from a nearby tree.

Baby Flicker

June 15, 2016: Baby Flicker. One of the babies hung out near the opening today—with the male clinging to a tree trunk about 6 feet away. The chicks beaks are shorter and more blunt than an adult, and this one has the soft tissue at the back of the beak. By the time Clark’s Nutcracker’s fledge, they are almost as large as the parents, but the soft pink tissue indicates a young one. This chick appears to be a female, but possibly it takes a year or two for the orange patch to show on a male?

Female Flicker

June 17, 2016: Lots of action today! The Flicker parents landed near the nest regularly, seemingly to entice the chicks to fledge. They fed them well into the evening.

Two Flicker Chicks

June 17, 2016: I have only seen two chicks so far. Neither have the orange patch of a male.

Flicker Female Landing

June 17: At least one chick was hanging at the entrance to the nest almost all the time.

Flicker Female And Chick

June 17, 2016: The chicks are large now and seemingly hungry all the time. Both parents were busy bringing food.

Incoming Male Flicker

June 17, 2016: A chick would call loudly from the nest, barking out distinctive Flicker chirps….”I’m hungry!”


June 17, 2016: I had my camera ready for a Flicker’s first flight. They got so close, but never made the leap of faith.

Flicker Cavity

June 18, 2016: I knew the chicks were getting close to fledging yesterday, but as of late evening, at least some of them were still in the nest. I was out most of the day. I came home to a very quiet back yard and an empty nest. I had hoped to get to photograph at least one “first flight”, but I missed the opportunity. Once the chicks were at the opening and could see the great outdoors, it didn’t take long!

I’d love to know how many chicks were actually in the nest…I could only ever see two at any one time.

So, they are gone and my Northern Flicker Journal is about complete. After knowing there were no remaining chicks, I inspected the nest. The opening is 3″ in diameter. The nesting cavity is 19″ from the top to the bottom and 7″ in diameter. I suspect the Red Squirrel will find it and possibly move her babies into it soon. Next year, I will fill it with sawdust and hope they excavate it again. It was great while it lasted! >> MJ

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Comments (10)

  1. Hi Mike: What terrific series! I’m envious. You have a terrific setup there. I’m sure National Audubon Society will love your work on the Flickers. Keep shooting and posting.
    ALoha, Bud

  2. Mike…these are amazing! This has always been one of my favorite birds. I hope you get to see babies, how fun will that be. And if you find any of their beautiful feathers, save some for me.

  3. gorgeous photos of the flicker..We don’t see many here in Florida and last year those Troublemaking starlings chased the few away at our local park. Beautiful inflight images. Thanks for sharing.

  4. jeff c birmingham

    That is one cool looking bird and some great pics. How long does
    this kind of bird stay around Jackson Hole????

  5. Jeff, Some Flickers are year round birds in Jackson Hole. It seems I see more in the summer, so possibly some of them migrate out of the valley for the winter.

  6. Lowell Schechter

    Mike, wonderful images of the Flicker. This bird is such beautiful looking bird and you had a great setup to capture all these great images. Recently I have gotten into bird photography and it is certainly trial and error. looking forward to more images .

  7. Francisco Ruiz

    Excellent journal and photos. Thank you!!

  8. Maurice Horn

    Hi Mike, In my yard in Montana starlings make life so miserable for flickers that they are forced out of the nesting box I provide for them. Starlings will beat up the female flicker and peck her eggs and take over the box for their own nest. Now I think the flickers at my house have retreated far out of town into the back country trying to escape the urban dwelling and marauding starlings. I have not seen any flickers in my yard in Montana for about three weeks. I think a few starlings may even try to pursue the flickers into the back country. Hopefully, wherever the flickers have gone, they have succeeded in escaping the starlings. Lately I hear many starlings all around my neighborhood especially in the morning when I go out into my yard. Sorry to have to report such bad news about the peaceful and beautiful northern flickers. Good luck to your flickers. They are going to need it. Maurice

  9. Mike, I don’t usually use this word but these bird photos are absolutely STUNNING. I have never seen a series of wildlife shots that catch the story of life in the wild (even if it is in your backyard) while also having such sharpness and bokah backgrounds as these. I feel like they are in my backyard.

  10. Kat

    That was the most exciting Flicker encounter ever! I am lucky to have both Red Shafted and Yellow Shafted Northern flickers where I live. The bonus is seeing them co-mingle with each other and see the intergraded ones arrive. Do you have any around this season?

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