“Hey! What was that?!”
I caught movement out of the corner of my eye through a bush.
“There it is again! By that tall stump. I think it is a bird.”
It flew away in a flash of brown with a big white spot on the tail. It was not a woodpecker, because they have a lot of black and white.
I went closer and as I did I saw another of the same kind of bird emerge from a hole less than 3 feet above the ground and fly away.
“That must be a flicker!”
I cautiously crept to the hole and heard what sounded like a bunch of buzzing bees with sore throats. I could not see anything inside the 3 inch hole, because the babies were over a foot below the opening. I decided I would return the next day with my camera.
At home, I researched flickers on the internet and sure enough, what I saw matched the description of a Northern Flicker. The next day I confirmed with my camera that I was indeed watching a family of Red Shafted Flickers (another name for the western variety). For the next 10 days I would be blessed to observe the growth and feeding habits of this little bird family.
A couple days later it finally struck me how to get a picture of the inside of the nest. My phone barely fit, but I could get the lens inside while the shutter button remained outside. In that way I could finally count five babies. There were two or three males (red cheeks) and two or three females. They had probably hatched almost two weeks prior to my first sighting.
That second day I could lay on the ground and take pictures without disturbing the parents, but they were very low quality. So I returned that night with my tent and setup about 50 feet away just as it got dark. I was surprised to discover the parents did not sleep with their young, but the next morning it was clear they were watching from the trees. This was just like God’s method. He came in bodily form once and made a few other appearances in history, but He has decided it best for us to watch from above and guard us with His invisible power.
Day after day I returned once or twice to observe and take pictures for hours at a time. There was a lot of waiting as the parents lengthened the feeding cycle from about 20 minutes apart to an hour. I took about 1000 photos and learned what would work and what would not. I even bought a better camera to let me take better pictures and be less intrusive. I was growing as a photographer along with the growing babies.
I did not keep my eyes glued on the nest all the time. The parents unintentionally signaled me as they landed in nearby trees and called to their children that it was feeding time. That gave me about 15 to 30 seconds to prep the camera.
Until the last two days, mother and father alternated feeding times. We would never find their formula in a store, but the babies enjoyed regurgitated termites, ants, and other bugs being shoved down their throats. In characteristic woodpecker fashion, a parent’s beak would rapidly poke in and out of a baby’s throat while the slimy food was disgorged. Usually the parent had enough to feed two or three younglings at a time. The insects were gathered by mom and dad using their long, sticky tongues that wrapped around the inside of their skulls to finally attach to their inner nose.
The first several days the parents disappeared inside to do all the feeding, but then the babies began appearing at the hole when mommy and daddy called. That was the sign that the babies were a week or less away from being able to fly. The last several days, one baby or another would sit at the hole looking out, even though food was not on the way. They became comfortable with me moving around slowly as long as I stayed 20 feet away. This encouraged me to move my tent/blind about 25 feet away for the last couple of days.
I spent most of those final days in the tent and as few hours as possible doing regular duties. The babies spent a lot of time at the hole peering out and even would fight with each other for viewing privileges. Many times I was sure the hidden baby below would knock the upper one clear out of the hole and force it to fly. Never happened.
On day 10 I had an appointment in town that I could not miss so I made it as quick as possible. I returned home, ate lunch, then hiked the three miles to the tree. When I arrived it was strangely quiet. No noise. No faces in the hole. I carefully tiptoed to the nest and saw nothing. I put my camera in and discovered all but one boy had flown away. I was shocked and disappointed. They had danced on the edge for so long without jumping that I thought I was safe for a few hours. However, when the end came, it came rapidly.
I stayed several more hours waiting for the last baby to fly, but it just sat content at the hole waiting for food to come. I could hear mom or dad calling from 100 yards away, but baby made no move. I wondered if the parents would abandon it, but the next morning they were still calling and baby was still sitting. Two days later, I checked the quiet hole and found the little boy dead. He never answered the call of his father.
Besides the privilege of watching a family grow, the greatest lesson I learned was that sad one at the end. Even though the baby flicker was programmed to fly and its greatest happiness was to be found in the air, it did not muster the courage to leave the comfort and safety of its nest. It wanted to be babied all of its life, rather than mature, grow, and have babies of its own. Am I like that little flicker, so comfortable in my routine that I don’t realize I have stopped growing? Am I heeding my Father’s call to fly away with Him, thereby avoiding being left behind to a sad death?
The next couple weeks I would hear and see those flickers all the way down in my neighborhood and far beyond on the other side of their nest where they were hatched. One time I saw a couple of them playing and chasing each other through the trees. They looked very happy that they had responded when called.
Daddy Northern Flicker (has red cheeks) dances on top of the stump nesting his five children.
Five babies photographed by sticking my phone camera in the hole. The top 2 are females–plain cheeks. The middle 2 are males–red cheeks. Not sure about the bottom one.
Eye to the sky
Mama Flicker cleans the poop her children make. God has cleaned up a mess of ours once or twice or more!
Brother and sister enjoy fresh air together
Lunch time for three!
Supper time for two!
Baby boy waits patiently at the hole for more food, but sadly, it never came because he was supposed to fly away with his siblings. I am not including it, but I took another picture in the nest and he was dead at the bottom.