The Tale of a Northern Flicker Family Captured on Film

The grand-prize winner of our fourth annual Photo Awards got the perfect shot with patience—and a specific image in mind.

Last July amateur photographer Alice Cahill was at central coastal California’s Montaña de Oro State Park—where she volunteers as a docent at the historic Spooner’s Ranch House—when she noticed a pair of northern flickers taking turns caring for their two chicks. The male and female would “alternately fly in and attend to the nest every 20 or 30 minutes,” she says, “stay for 5 or 10 seconds, and fly out again.”  

Captivated, Cahill decided to spend that whole day, eight hours, taking pictures of the flicker family. Success came at about 4:15 p.m., when ideal indirect light filtered through the trees, softening the frame and naturally exposing the birds. Cahill wanted to capture one of the parents leaving the nest, so when the male peeked out, she put her camera on rapid fire and started shooting. If this photo is sharp, she told herself, it will tell the story I want to tell. The resulting image became the Grand Prize winner of the fourth annual Audubon Magazine Photography Awards.

In addition to highlighting the bird family, the photo has great texture and color, and shows movement, Cahill says, explaining why she submitted it. The male had just tucked his feet back and pushed off into flight, removing waste from the nest in his mouth. The nest hole and tree are in sharp focus, yet the bird’s vibrant orange wings are blurred.

A nature enthusiast, Cahill has long taken images of California’s scenic coast and unique biodiversity, but until a year ago, she had avoided bird photography. “There is just a different mindset when you are photographing birds,” she says. “It’s hard enough to shoot them sitting on a fence post.” She wanted to do them justice, she adds, to catch them feeding, nesting, or in flight.

Her hesitation dissipated in January 2012 when she shot a crisp image of a Cooper’s hawk at a local park in Morro Bay, where she and her husband have lived for the past five years. After that, she made it a goal to capture birds in flight.

Having a good camera helped. Back in 1992 Cahill’s husband had given her a Canon Rebel SLR film camera, igniting her interest in photography. She started reading photo magazines and attending lectures, and even took a correspondence course from the New York Institute of Photography. In 2004 she went digital, purchasing a Canon 20D DSLR.

Winning Audubon’s 2012 Photography Awards has inspired Cahill to expand her photography base. She has two upcoming gallery exhibits: One starts next week in San Louis Obispo, at The Photo Shop, and another is in Morro Bay, in June. “What I like about photography is that it is a blip of both the artistic and technical worlds. It engages all parts of the brain,” she says. “It gets you outside, especially doing nature photography. I believe it’s good for the soul.”