One of my great joys this spring was to go to a local park on weekend evenings and watch a pair of gilded flickers raise their family in a nest near the top of an old saguaro. I’ve shared some of those pictures before and have more I haven’t sorted yet, but one of my favorites is the last one I took. Earlier in the weekend as I scouted for antelope squirrels lower in the park I heard a flicker calling out constantly and worried something had gone wrong and one of the adults was alarmed, but when I made my way to the nest I realized the last remaining youngster had found its full flicker voice and was putting it to good use.
It was as close to fledging as it could be, often hanging out of the nest hole and even leaning down occasionally to shoot out its long tongue (I’m presuming ants were climbing up the cactus as they are a favored food). It was happy enough to take feedings from its parents but after the sun set and I prepared to leave, I wondered if the Germans had a word for the feeling that as much as you had loved watching a flicker grow up, you hoped not to see it again. Not that I wouldn’t technically see it, just that I wouldn’t know I had, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get back until the next weekend and something would have gone wrong for it not to have left the nest by then.
I took one last photo, though I had taken one just like it after the sun set the day before, and whispered let’s not meet here again. As I arrived the following weekend I was both happy and sad to walk up the trail and not hear the familiar voice, to see the nest hole emptied of a bird on the precipice of leaving the comfortable world it had known to join the fuller world that awaited, and hoped it would have a wonderful life.
Happy Father’s Day to my father of the year, this gilded flicker nesting near the top of a saguaro. It was my first time watching a flicker raise a family so I was a bit confused when, unlike Gila woodpeckers, the adults arrived at the nest with empty beaks. As the nestlings grew old enough to lean out of the nest I understood why, they were regurgitating food into the always-hungry mouths of the little ones.
The nest was in a nearby park, best visible late in the day, so on weekends I’d stop by to watch this tireless provider feeding his babies before and after the sun set. I brought out my Canon 500mm telephoto for these pictures, the autofocus doesn’t work very well on my Sony cameras but it’s amazing it works at all given it’s a 15 year old Canon lens attached to a Sigma converter attached to a Sony camera, a combo they were not designed for. I often shot with the electronic shutter so I wouldn’t make any noise.
For a while I was concerned something had happened to the mother as I only ever saw this male (a bit of his red mustache is visible in the picture below as he feeds the last nestling) but it turned out to be a coincidence of timing as eventually I would see her too. The top picture is right before the sun set, the bottom two just after (on the following day).
My favorite times to be in the desert are around sunrise and sunset, transfixed by how rapidly the light rises and falls, changing not only in intensity but color. I love the moment as the sun fades when a little diffuse red light mixes in with the heavier scattered blues, similar to the light here. But the sun, while low in the sky, had not yet set, instead blocked by a band of smoke in the northwest from a burning desert. While a depressing sign of things to come in the drought-stricken West, there was hope before me too. Flower buds on an old saguaro, soon to burst into blossom. And a faithful flicker father landing at his nest, squeaking voices inside welcoming him home.
A few weeks back flower buds dotted the tops of saguaro arms with the occasional early bloomers producing a flower or two. Normally the flowers are white but this one appeared to have a red mustache, perhaps a trick of the light as the sun dipped behind the mountains and only a little direct light fell upon the high points of the desert.
It may look like this male gilded flicker took an interest in the honeybee as the two pollinators shared a saguaro, but it was just a coincidence of timing, the bird was only interested in eating from the flowers.
If the Sonoran Desert was naught but saguaros and woodpeckers it would still be a delight. I didn’t think I’d have a shot at this gilded flicker, I was watching flycatchers when he flew up to a hole near the top of a saguaro. Given the angle to the sun he was in shadow but for a moment he leaned far enough left that the light fell upon his profile, showing his red mustache and the yellow wing linings for which he is named. They apparently prefer making nests near the top where the newer growth is softer, while the Gila woodpeckers have stronger beaks that give them more latitude in where they drill their holes. I’m not sure if this was his nest hole or not, he didn’t bring any food in his bill and only looked in briefly, he might have just been interested in the flowers blooming above his head. But it could be he was afraid to enter with me watching so I bid adieu and continued on.
A gilded flicker shows off his red mustache as he pauses during a saguaro breakfast, his face and bill dusted in pollen. We had a similar flicker in Oregon, Emma always let me know when one came into the backyard as they were favorites of ours.
Gilded flickers make their homes in saguaros but not metal ones. Nevertheless a cell tower disguised as a cactus is a good place to let the world know what an amazing drummer you are! From sunrise yesterday on a walk in the neighborhood, since I still have to go to work most days I decided to stay off the trails to minimize risk of virus exposure.
I wouldn’t describe flickers as quiet birds though it seemed so relative to the pairs of wrens and thrashers and Gila woodpeckers that were making a ruckus around him on a winter’s morning. As I watched him watch the others he reminded me of a driver atop a massive vehicle and I wished the saguaros could slowly shuffle across the desert, so that where you found the old giants would depend on where the birds last parked them.