Woodpeckers In (and coming out of) Nesting Cavities

Different woodpecker species often compete for the same nesting cavity and “ownership” can change from year to year.


1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 800, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400 mm, not baited, set up or called in

In late June of 2014 I photographed a pair of Williamson’s Sapsuckers at this nesting cavity near the border of southwest Montana and Idaho. On different trips to the area I spent considerable time with them as they refurbished the cavity and eventually had chicks (that I could hear but never did see).

Here I captured the female as she exited the cavity. This was always an extremely difficult shot to get because their exit cannot be anticipated and it’s very, very fast. So to give me a little more wiggle room in the frame (and more depth of field) I switched over to my smaller zoom lens to get this photo. It may not be a great shot technically but I still like it, in part because of the degree of difficulty. I deleted dozens of “air shots” and images with clipped body parts trying to get photos similar to this one.

That long shadow of the bird on the trunk below it helps to tell the story of the image. Normally I like to photograph birds with the sun low in the sky but the angle of that shadow correctly indicates that this shot was taken much later in the morning. Because of all the trees in the area there was never any light on the cavity until about 10 AM so I always photographed these birds in late morning. In bird photography you do what you have to do…

When I arrived at the same nest tree in early May of the following year (2015) the cavity was occupied by a different species of woodpecker.



1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

Now the new tenants were Northern Flickers and they were renovating the cavity for their own use. This is the male (red malar stripe) peering out at me just before he made his explosive exit. The cavity can best be identified as the same one in the two photos by the series of holes and scars in the bark of the aspen between the cavity entrance and the lower right corner of the images.

I think it’s also interesting to note the discoloration of the tree bark below the cavity entrance in each photo. That discoloration is caused by the activity of woodpeckers clinging to the tree below the hole where they land on their many thousands of trips (often hundreds each day between the male and female) as they excavate or renovate the cavity and then bring food to their youngsters or remove fecal sacs from the nest.

Sadly this flicker pair didn’t complete the nesting season in this cavity. When we arrived at the tree a month later (6/10/15) the dead aspen tree had been cut down by some asshat for firewood. It had been a cold, wet spring and the part of the tree containing the cavity had been drug some distance to a nearby fire pit.



I’ve posted this image before but in this context I decided at the last minute it begs to be included again. The nest cavity can be seen near the bottom (here the trunk fragment is upside down) and there were multiple broken eggs inside. The cavity had been approximately at eye level and the bozo responsible surely had to be aware of exactly what he/she was doing.

Sorry for the downer to end this post. To end this way hadn’t been my original plan but when I’m composing posts I often don’t know where the process will lead me.




28 comments to Woodpeckers In (and coming out of) Nesting Cavities

  • Ed

    Great images Ron, except for the last one course. However, that last image does really tell a story, a sad one that angers me. So, in a way this is a powerful image…

    Somehow “tough guys” now think it is cool to intentionally harass and kill wildlife. In reality these are weak cowards, who somehow get their rocks off bullying (killing) innocent wildlife. I keep believing in karma and “what goes around, comes around…”. Someday this fool(s) will get their payback…

  • I remember. And feel the ballistic rage and despair just as much as I did.
    Ocygen thieves.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Another great set o’ pics! Love the Flicker especially. It is so sad to hear about all the stupid things people do day after day. And are they becoming more stupid (because of media and addictions),or are there just more of them around? Seems the only thing you can really depend on people to do is to procreate – and therein lies the problem. Serious environmental change can only come if the human population ceases and desists at least a little bit. Yet suggesting people limit their family size, or not have one at all, is considered extremely radical in most sectors. Hell, it’s our God-given right to screw up the planet. Whoops… do I sound bitter?

    • “Seems the only thing you can really depend on people to do is to procreate – and therein lies the problem”

      Boy, that statement really cuts to the chase, Joanne. I agree.

  • Laura Culley

    As you might expect, I love the first two shots and weep at the loss of the nest in the third. A natural happening is one thing, but when it’s caused by stupid, obnoxious and oblivious humans, I just want to squeeze their neck(s) until their little eyes bug out! I could say more, but won’t. Y’all have already said the words I’d use (except for those expletives I’d have used because I’m not all that civilized).
    On the good news front, I finally confirmed that the birds I’m seeing out in the field are indeed Phainopeplas! And they’re EVERYWHERE in the fields around here! So if you want to add them to your life list, come on down! I’ve got a spare bedroom and the fields are close!
    I finally paired my sightings with Peterson’s “Western Birds” (Copyright 1990) to make it official, much to my delight. For some reason, this was a special bird in my mind. I thought I’d never see one, but here I am, right in their breeding range. HURRAY!! I need to dig a little deeper to find out where they like to nest so that Jack and I don’t disturb them. There is the issue of the memory loss that occurs when I walk from outside through my door, but now that I actually took out “Western Birds,” maybe I’ll remember to dig out a few more books? Who knows?
    In the field, they’re not happy with Jack’s (male HAHA) presence, but they don’t do anything aggressive (yet–that might change when active nests are involved). They hang out a consistent 50 to 60 feet from us at any given time, don’t make much noise, flit around in short flights from mesquite/greasewood to the next, and overall keep a close eye on us. Jack ignores them, so that’s good.
    The specialness of this bird is similar to my gut-level reaction to seeing the Columbia River for the first time. I thought I’d never see that, either, and when I did, it was a particularly joyous event. I have NO idea why my reaction to both the Columbia River and Phainopeplas are so strong, but there’s some sort of deep-seated memory(?) to both. Weird. AND, this bird needs an easier-to-remember/spell name!!

    • Laura, because of their long tail, crest, glossy black colors of the male and weird name I almost think of Phainopeplas as an exotic species. I’ve never seen one so I’m very happy for and envious of you.

  • Robert (RJ) Davis

    It is unfortunate that your ire will not be properly appreciated by the ‘asshats’ ( or Yahoos, as I call them) that are not aware of your post. The willful destruction of “dead” inhabited trees is hopefully an exceptional case. Exceptional for its ignorance, indifference, and cruelty. But it does remind me of the perhaps unintended impact on nature when we necessarily decide to clear and dispose our property of “dead” wood.

    There will always be someone that will see a “dead” tree as an eye-sore, and rubbish to be cut down and disposed of. But even a decaying tree sustains life and is therefore a living tree even after it has fallen. I am not alone in suggesting that we let trees stand as long as they can, and let them rest where they fall, if possible. There are several mature poplar trees that line part of our property that have stood as white hollowed shells for years. They are drilled by woodpeckers and groomed by nuthatch and chickadee for ants and grubs constantly. They have been falling naturally one by one with each seasonal wind storm. Once down, we may clear the fallen trees if they interfere with an in-use path or “roadway”, and typically set everything to the edge of a path or clearing to be taken over by brambles, wild rhododendron, and the like. These “new” shelters become activated by sparrows, squirrels, mice and snakes, until they naturally break down and become woodland compost. We have a fire pit, a large one, that rarely gets lit. Instead, we have a property full of natural character and interest. And, I don’t mind feeling and speaking proud of it. Take that, Yahoos!

    • Very well said, Robert.

      I think individuals and public entities often (though not always) use “danger to folks from falling” and “fire hazard” as an excuse to cut dead trees down and remove the deadfall.

  • Susan Stone

    I remember when you reported on the tree being cut down, and it distresses me as much now as it did the first time you mentioned it. I would tend to think that the bozo in question was totally unaware of what they were doing – at least that wouldn’t surprise me. It’s even worse if it was deliberate. I love that you caught the female Sapsucker as she was leaving the nest hole – I know from all your time observing these birds that those are extremely difficult and unlikely shots to get.

    • Thank you, Susan.

      They’d have had to be completely oblivious to be unaware of the cavity. As I said it was at eye level (so it would be almost impossible to miss as they chopped on the tree), it was facing the general direction of the fire pit and at that time of year the birds would have been flying in and out of that cavity constantly. I suppose it’s possible but I seriously doubt that’s the way it went down.

      • Laura Culley

        Ron, never underestimate the stupidity of humans. Collectively, we’re not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier paired with the fact that we’re (collectively) oblivious to much of what’s around us. I can tell you tales and I’m sure you have an ample supply of your own! And NO happy face here. In fact, it’s a good thing I never encountered this bozo. I refuse to be accountable for my actions should that have happened! GRRRRRRRRR!

  • Emily

    Haha!!! Well said. 🤣

  • Judy Gusick

    Love the photo’s, Ron. Yes, mother nature does tend to take those trees down on a regular basis and there are different occupants over time. We have many old cottonwoods that happens too. It is frustrating when some ignorant/don’t give a damn person has to add to the problem. 🙁

  • Patty Chadwick

    The second shot is classic….and the third, once again,brings up a tsunami of depressio and rage…..it is so symbolic of the times….so senselessly destructive…so sad!!!

  • Marty K

    Yes, asshat is a good word, but it needs an adjective and I’ll bet you can guess the one I have in mind! I got to spend some quality time with a lovely woodpecker when I was in Northern California last week. I believe it was the same species as in several of your posts from earlier in the year. Of course, I can’t recall it now that I’m trying to. These days I have a mind like a sieve. 😉

    • Marty, it may bring you at least some comfort to know that I originally used the word “asshole” but changed it only moments before I hit the publish button out of deference to more genteel readers than myself. 🙂

      But your implied adjective was also in the back of my mind and I used it many times after discovering the tree had been hacked down.

      Perhaps your woodpecker was a Red-naped Sapsucker or a Red-breasted Sapsucker…

      • Marty K

        I took another look at the two birds you mentioned. This one had red only on the back part of his head, so after perusing the Cornell site (thank you for teaching me about it! 🙂 ), I think I have my friend narrowed down to most likely a Nuttall’s Woodpecker or perhaps a Hairy Woodpecker. I kept my distance and had neither camera nor binoculars, so I’m relying on my questionable eyesight and even more questionable memory. 😉 Still, regardless of ID (or lack thereof), it was a delightful way to spend a few minutes.

        Thanks to you and the rest of this wonderful blog family, I was definitely more tuned into the avian world on this trip — from comparing the spread primaries of the crows vs. the more compact nature of the seagulls’ wings to noticing so many different types of LBJs. My favorite moment was after a rainfall, standing under a small pine tree with at least 20 small birds of several varieties flitting about above me. Magical! 😀

        P.S. Asshole is a mild one in my book. Genteel schmenteel.

    • Laura Culley

      Marty, here are a couple of explanations I’ve developed for that mind-like-a-sieve concept. First, “I have a mind like a steel trap–one that’s been left out behind the barn for the last 40 years!” The second is, “I’ve slept since then. Stuff falls out.” Feel free to use them as necessary! 🙂

      • Marty K

        Thanks, Laura! My memory’s not as good as it used to be. Also, my memory’s not as good as it used to be. 😉

  • Mitch

    Condolences on the loss, Ron. Every Spring, I locate Pileated nests so Dad and I can hopefully get “better” shots than we have on record, and because it’s fun and keeps my hand in the game.

    Two years in the last six, Mother Nature has snapped the tops out of our nest trees. The storm in 2012 twisted the top out above the nest cavity so we were able to continue to work with them, but this year we weren’t so lucky. A thunderstorm snapped the top right at the cavity, you could see the top section of the cavity in the piece lying on the ground. This tree was on the side of a steep canyon in thick brush and briars; I actually had to cut my way into the top with loppers to see if I could find any sign of the babies. I never found any sign on the ground, and since the nest was open to the sky after the disaster, the Hawk or the Owl would have had an easy meal.

    I went back for several days hoping to maybe find another cavity that the adults could have possibly relocated to, as the chicks were small. but had no luck with that effort. The adults that came in to take a look at me were nervous and spooky, so that was a clue, too, that the chicks had met a bad end. Dad had shot them the evening before the storm and they looked like little lizards, hardly any feathers and their skin was so translucent that light actually shone through their skin. And, there were THREE of them! This was our first opportunity at a nest with three chicks and we were pretty excited about the opportunity, but Mother Nature will hijack the best-laid plans, as we all know.

    Anyhoo, sorry for your loss. I know how it feels to approach a shooting site with high hopes and then be really bummed out….Mitch

    • Mitch, I was mostly bummed out for the birds but of course I was extremely disappointed as a photographer too.

      I think many of these old nesting trees, many of which have been weakened by rot, often eventually break at the cavity because that spot would naturally be weakened even more by the presence of the hollow cavity.

      At least your cavity was apparently destroyed by natural processes. I’d like to throttle the jerk that cut down this tree. I reported it to the forest service and they were sympathetic but of course at that point there was nothing they could do.

  • Emily

    Love these shots, Ron! I also love the term “asshat” (or “assclown”, which is a favorite) to embody the loser who would knowingly disrupt an active nesting site. It makes me wish woodpeckers were vindictive creatures who would poke the eyes out of nature-haters like this jerk! (Ok, that was probably too much, but I, too, am upset by the sadness of this scene 😔)

    • Well, it wasn’t “too much” for me, Emily, although I might leave them with one functional eye as evidence that I’m not being too vindictive… 🙂