Not a rare bird, but one that’s hard to photograph.
The Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus, is a strikingly beautiful bird that’s found throughout the continental U.S. and Canada, mostly in wooded areas, and is here in Minnesota year-round.
Although it’s a woodpecker (note the impressive beak) it feeds mostly on the ground – in fact its favorite food is ants. It’s hard to get a good photo of a bird pecking around in the dirt, even if you manage to get close enough. And when not feeding, it hangs out high in the trees. So opportunities for a good shot are limited.
But sometimes in winter, a storm coats the trees with heavy ice and snow, and covers the ground, and things get difficult for flickers. On one such day I spotted this fellow (males have the black stripes near the beak) low in a tree in my back yard, waiting out the storm and grabbing a few sunflower seeds from our feeder.
As luck would have it, I had my camera already set up out on the back porch, with the big lens, so when I saw this beautiful bird within range, my heart rate went up. I was able to get just a few good shots before he took off.
There 2 subspecies groups: the yellow-shafted and the red-shafted. The “shaft” part is under the tail feathers, not visible in these photos, but the red patch at the nape of the neck means this one is a yellow-shafted. The exotic colors (most woodpeckers are black and white) and fabulous speckled markings make this bird a real standout on a gray winter day.
I’d like to lure him back, but they’re not common in residential areas. And for whatever reason – maybe competition from other woodpeckers – flickers seem to be losing interest in hammering into tree trunks for food, while having good success on the ground. Maybe in a hundred thousand years or so, evolution will have them even more more ground-oriented and looking quite different. But I hope they keep the crazy red, orange and pink.
5 Replies to “The Northern Flicker”
A bird that was unknown to me before this article. As usual, Jim, expertly written and illustrated by some fantastic images of the bird. Being ready to take the shot was a great piece of luck although being prepared is not really being lucky! Thanks for enlightening me!
Great images, Jim! I don’t have the patience for bird photos. These are outstanding! Also, very informative.
Sharon, it’s definitely a game of patience and strategy. Just walking around with a camera and a big lens is unlikely to succeed.
another of my favorite birds & great up-close capture! we have a few near us who compete w stellar’s jay, but mostly just hear them, and never had a chance to actually get my camera ready. i did get some pix while staying on a golf course – main problem wasn’t only the bird’s flickering behind tree branches, but also dodging those hard round eggs when they went off course
To me, every bird is hard to photograph. I don’t think Northern Flicker is common here in California, but I don’t live close to wooded areas and when I go to those areas I’m not paying attention to birds. The photograph came out really well and the snow I think helps it pop up.