Usually I don’t recommend photographing birds while at the nest. This is especially true of songbirds who are easily disturbed and may even abandon a nest with eggs if the photographer is too intrusive. But woodpeckers are a bit more tolerant, especially once you can hear the young begging and calling from the cavity. At this stage, mom and dad are making frequent trips to the nest just to keep the babies full and happy. You don’t even need a blind as they will usually tolerate your quiet presence. But don’t overstay your welcome! A half hour to an hour or so is probably plenty. After that, the parents may become annoyed with the unwanted attention.
EQUIPMENT and TECHNIQUE
Ideally you’ll find a nest that is not too high in the tree. Eye-level would be wonderful but this rarely happens. Cavities up to about 20 feet in the tree are workable. Look for an angle that is more of a side-view than a straight-on shot that will only get you many “back shots.” Then look for an uncluttered background. For me the perfect scenario is a background mix of blue sky and green leaves that is a fair distance away so they blur nicely into green and blue blobs of color (see the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nest photo below).
A flash is essential in many situations. Dappled sunlight is a very tough photographic situation and most nests are deep in the woods. A flash alone will be better than no flash, but a flash with a Better Beamer attached will throw your light much farther. Grab your tripod for rock solid shots. Since you know exactly where the action is going to happen, it is easy to set up your tripod/camera combo in exactly the perfect spot. Then, when a bird comes in, you don’t even have to look through the camera, just press and hold the shutter. And since with flash your shutter synch speed will likely be 1/200 or 1/250 of a second, the tripod will help keep your images sharp.
A Northern Flicker pair decided to nest right along our driveway this summer. And they chose an interesting site. They excavated a hole in a “widow maker” …a large branch that had broken off the main tree but was still hanging by a “thread.” But the branch stayed intact and they survived. It was fun to watch them feed the young ones. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f8 at 1/250 second, ISO 1600, Canon 420EX flash and Better Beamer, hand held]
Golden-fronted Woodpeckers are the southern cousin to our Red-bellied Woodpeckers. Note their golden yellow nape and the red atop the head (only the males show this mark).This male in a nest cavity in south Texas near the Rio Grande River was not calling, just yawning. Raising kids is tiring work! [Canon XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens and 1.4x teleconverter, f8 at 1/125 second, ISO 400, -1.0 ev, tripod]
Northern Flicker in nest cavity, Carlton County, Minnesota. Flickers often excavate nest holes in living aspen trees, though most trees likely suffer from heart rot. The [Canon 40D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2000 ISO 400, braced on car door]
Northern Flicker feeding young in nest along the Gunflint Trail, Cook County, Minnesota. Cavity is in a pine that was amidst a burn following a forest fire. [Canon 40D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f7.1 at 1/250 second, ISO 400, Canon 420EX flash and Better Beamer, tripod]
Thanks to Paul Sundberg for sharing this Pileated Woodpecker nest location a few years ago. It was in a very photogenic Paper Birch too! Look closely and you can see that the male (red “mustache”) is doing some “house cleaning” by removing the young’s fecal sacs from the cavity. He will fly off and dump them away from the nest so as not to advertise its location to predators with a pile at the base of the home tree. [Canon XTi with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/640, ISO 400, Canon 420EX flash and Better Beamer, tripod]
Male Pileated feeding the crew. The female lacks the red “mustache.” Abandoned Pileated nest cavities (the birds never reuse a nest hole) are readily adopted by many species including Flying Squirrels, Red Squirrels, Pine Marten, bats, nesting ducks (Wood Ducks, Common Merganser, Hooded Merganser, Bufflehead), nesting owls (Boreal and Saw-whet), other woodpeckers (Hairy, Northern Flicker) and Kestrel. Pileateds are true “keystone” species in the North Woods…a species that is very important to the habitat and to many other species.
A few years ago we had a nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsucker near the house. This female (no yellow on throat) brings a beak full of ants to the youngsters. I like how the blue sky and green leaves background blurred in this shot. A Better Beamer on my flash lit up the bird nicely.
The Northern Flicker was actually my “trigger bird” many years ago. A trigger bird is the one that got one excited about birding. As a kid I was a fanatical collector of many things—baseball cards, beer cans, barbed wire, to name just a few. When I was 13 I saw a strange bird land on the light pole in front of our house. It had many field marks—spots on the breast, a red mark, a black “moustache”, and lots of yellow. I somehow found out it was a Yellow-shafted Flicker (now called Northern Flicker) and I wondered how many other birds were around. I basically started “collecting” bird sightings. This led to a lifelong fascination with birds, and eventually wildlife photography. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/640, ISO 1000, braced on car window]
My flash had run out of batteries and dusk was approaching, but I didn’t want to miss the shot. What to do? I simply cranked up the ISO to 3200 and kept shooting. I was even able to freeze the action as this Flicker fluffed her feathers. Sure its “noisier’ than if I would have shot it at ISO 200, but I still got the shot. [Canon 7D with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/1250, ISO 3200, braced on car window]
Black-backed Woodpeckers are a bird of remote boreal forests. Then NEVER come to bird feeders and rarely leave their Black Spruce/Tamarack bogs. You can usually tell their cavities by the ring around the hole that has been completely debarked. This female is feeding a young male (note his yellow cap). Interestingly, the following year another Black-backed nest was occupied just above this one in the same Tamarack. Was it the same adults? Or one of the offspring? Black-backeds often nest in living spruce, tamarack and pine near water or other openings in bogs, burns, and upland spruce-fir forests.