A Little Off

A primary wing feather of a northern flicker (red-shafted) sits on a lichen-covered builder in McDowell Sonoran Preserve in Scottsdale, Arizona on December 31, 2022. Original: _Z722527.NEF

On the last day of the year I was walking Bear in the desert when I noticed some extra color amongst the lichens. “A flicker feather!” I exclaimed to a disinterested pup, and since I had my superzoom got out the camera for a quick snap of one of their lovely primary wing feathers (see the US Fish & Wildlife Service Feather Atlas for more examples). I hesitated because something was off but I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was a beat, and a beat, and a beat, then I realized it was from a red-shafted flicker!

Before we moved here this variety of northern flicker was a backyard bird for us, and when I read that Arizona had both this flicker and a gilded flicker that nested in saguaros, I hoped I’d get to see one of the gildeds, however unlikely it was. Once we arrived I realized it was not unlikely at all as I had it the wrong-way round, the golden birds are the ones I see frequently. I once thought I saw a red-shafted flicker flying across the desert but I later so second-guessed myself that I struck it from my list. There aren’t any saguaros in the section of the park where I found this feather, perhaps I’ve been hiking around too many saguaros to see my once familiar friends.

But how can you not?


A female northern flicker searches for breakfast in a meadow on a rainy winter morning at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

A female northern flicker searches for breakfast in a meadow on a rainy winter morning at Ridgefield in 2012. Given its widespread distribution across my country I wrongly assumed this would be the flicker I’d see most often in Arizona, but so far I’ve only seen the gilded flicker. To be fair I’ve only hiked in the desert, perhaps we’ll be reunited when I visit the forests. The two flickers are quite similar both in appearance and call, so in a way it feels like we were never separated.

Dry Feathers

A close-up view of a female northern flicker

A very similar picture to another female flicker photo (that one with wet feathers), taken a couple of weeks later. There was a family of flickers that used to visit our suet feeder but I haven’t noticed them as much lately. Maybe I’ve just missed them, I lost my early warning system when our birdwatcher-in-residence died early this year.

Wet Feathers

Wet Feathers

A female flicker is thoroughly soaked on a rainy December afternoon. Her family were frequent visitors to the suet feeders in our backyard and I was thankful for it, I have a soft spot for woodpeckers.

Female Flicker

Female Flicker

A female northern flicker visits our suet feeder, part of a family that was visiting in December 2012. You can see the semi-circular arm of the feeder (and our house) reflected in her eye.

Rear Window

Rear Window

One of the northern flickers that visit our suet feeders, in this case a male of the red-shafted variety that are the norm here in Oregon. I removed the screen from my office window and shot from inside with my telephoto lens sticking out of the open window, all while making sure that none of the cats made a bold escape while I was preoccupied watching birds.

The Occasional No

A close-up view of the head of a female northern flicker with her mouth open, taken in our backyard in Portland, Oregon

Last fall I experimented with taking pictures out of my office window of the birds that visit the backyard, such as this female flicker at the suet feeder. At first I tried shooting through the glass but the pictures were far too soft, so I opened the window just enough for the big telephoto to fit through.

The smells and sounds of the outdoors brought the cats over to investigate, one by one, but I shooed them away so I wouldn’t have to worry about them jumping through the opening to freedom, sweet freedom. Scout grunted when I pushed her back, looking puzzled. We were so rarely at cross purposes that she had to be sure I hadn’t mistaken her for one of the other cats. She tried for the window again and I gently pushed her back, then again, and again, before she finally wheeled about and walked out of the room with her tail raised high.

She asked for so little, but what she wanted, she wanted. Usually what she wanted I was happy to give her, but even I sometimes had to tell my beloved Scout, “no”.

As soon as I closed the window and returned to the couch, having forgiven my insolence, she jumped onto my chest and purred.

She was the best.


A close-up view of the face of a female northern flicker

I loved the little woodpeckers in the woods behind our house when I was growing up but I didn’t discover flickers until I got into birds & photography in graduate school. I put my neophyte bird guide skills to the test as I tried to identify the bird making a ruckus in the tree outside my apartment. I found my mark and have loved flickers ever since.

The race we typically see in the west, the red-shafted flicker, is slightly different from the race I first met in the east. I have long hoped to get a close-up of the red-shafted male with his spectacular red mustache, and one was calling out from the nearby trees when I photographed this female at Ridgefield, but he never joined her down in the grass. She gave me great looks as she fed in the rain, however, and I was thankful for the opportunity as flickers are usually pretty skittish.

We even have them in our yard, they are a particular favorite of our resident bird-watcher Emma, and she and Sam and I got a great look from my office this afternoon as a male bathed in our birdbath. No way to get pictures without disturbing him, I can’t park my car in the backyard and photograph him Ridgefield-style. But he gave us a nice long look at his feathers as he splayed them about in the water and seemed nonplussed by his furry fan chirping at him from the cat tree.