From the Magazine Magazine


Candid Camera

Birds do some spectacular things when they think no one is watching.

When it comes to birds, charisma is built into their DNA. The photographic proof was abundant in the entries for the 2015 Audubon Photography Awards.

Ferocious birds, nurturing birds, thieving birds, self-conscious birds—they're are all out there.

Thanks to the patient and observant wildlife photographers who took part in our contest, now the rest of the world gets to see them.

Here are some of the strangest behaviors we saw entered in this year's photo awards:

Mate Race

Western Grebes. Photo: Charlie Baughman/Audubon Photography Awards

There’s nothing subtle about the courtship of Western Grebes. Swimming pairs of these grebes will rear up and race across the water’s surface side by side, in a noisy, splashing rush, eventually slowing down and diving underwater. In quieter moments, male and female ceremoniously present bits of water weeds to each other. 

Tucked In

White-tailed Ptarmigan. Photo: Dawn Y. Wilson/Audubon Photography Awards

Few birds are as well adapted to winter snow as the ptarmigans. In fall they molt from a mottled brown plumage to white winter feathers, and their heavily feathered toes act as snowshoes, allowing them to walk across the snow’s surface. To keep warm at night they will burrow into drifts, as this White-tailed Ptarmigan is doing in the high mountains of Colorado. 

Protective Parenting

California Condors. Photo: Loi Nguyen/Audubon Photography Awards

This adult California Condor tending its dark-headed chick is a model of parental commitment in the bird world. Adult condors incubate their single egg for about two months until it hatches, then bring food to the young in the nest for another five or six months until it is old enough to fly; even then, the young condor is dependent on its parents for at least another six months. Because the nesting cycle takes more than 12 months, condors can never raise more than one young bird every two years. 

High Maintenance 

Reddish Egret. Photo: Marie Read/Audubon Photography Awards

Feathers must serve many functions for birds, from flight and insulation to decoration, and they require a lot of maintenance. Most birds spend a large amount of time every day preening, using their bills to smooth and clean and arrange the feathers. They can get into distinctly awkward poses while preening, but wading birds like this Reddish Egret manage to look graceful no matter what they are doing. 

When Dinner Attacks

Great Blue Heron. Photo: Patrick Tewey/Audubon Photography Awards

The largest herons in North America, Great Blue Herons are noted for their remarkable range of aquatic prey, regularly swallowing huge fish, turtles, small birds, and even mammals as large as muskrats. Of course, none of these prey animals will go down without a fight. A large snake can cause particular problems, wrapping around the heron’s head and neck, and such a struggle may go on for minutes at a time. 

Cleaning House

Northern Flicker. Photo: Richard Derevan/Audubon Photography Awards

Members of the woodpecker family, such as this Northern Flicker, use their chisel-like bills to excavate nesting holes inside dead tree trunks or limbs. When they are first starting the entrance hole they can simply let the wood chips fall to the ground; once the hole is a little deeper, they have to toss out the chips and sawdust one mouthful at a time.

Fight for a Bite

Bald Eagles and Glaucous-winged Gull. Photo: Robert Coonrad/Audubon Photography Awards

Most large birds of prey are solitary, but Bald Eagles will gather in large numbers where fish are abundant, with dozens or even hundreds concentrating in favored areas. Quarrels over food are frequent, and they can look dramatic. But they’re not as serious as disputes over nesting territory, and eagles are rarely injured in these food fights. 

Solemn Vows

Royal Terns. Photo: Steve Ando/Audubon Photography Awards

Terns are graceful in just about everything they do, including their courtship behavior. These Royal Terns perform much of their courtship in an aerial ballet, with the pair circling and spiraling high in the air in synchronized flight. But they also court each other on the ground, with ritualized feeding, posturing, and bowing.

Food Prep

American Oystercatchers. Photo: Zachary Webster/Audubon Photography Awards

In most true shorebirds, such as most sandpipers and plovers, the downy young are able to feed themselves as soon as they hatch. But the specialized feeding habits of American Oystercatchers take more time to learn, so the adults will feed the young for at least their first two months, teaching them how to open shellfish and find other kinds of prey. 

Free Lunch

Wood Stork and White Ibis. Photo: Alan Tucker/Audubon Photography Awards

Many bird species may be found foraging together in shallow waters. Their differences in size, bill shape, and feeding behavior make it possible for them to coexist by targeting slightly different prey. But they’re not above targeting each other, and it’s common to see a larger bird stealing food from a smaller one, as this Wood Stork is attempting to do in pursuing this White Ibis. 

Long-Distance Lovers

Northern Gannets. Photo: Christine Hansen/Audubon Photography Awards

Although Northern Gannets may mate for life, members of a pair might not see each other for months at a time. After wintering out at sea, they return to their nesting colony in spring and are reunited at their traditional nest site. Rebuilding or repairing the nest is an important part of their breeding-season ritual, with the male bringing most of the material and the female adding it to the nest. 

Turf War

Tree Swallows. Photo: Jerry Amende/Audubon Photography Awards

Most kinds of birds defend territories during the breeding season, driving away other birds of their own kind. Tree Swallows don’t defend large feeding territories, since they range widely in pursuit of flying insects, but they can be very aggressive in defense of their nest site. Early in the season, when the swallows are choosing nest cavities, they often engage in spectacular aerial skirmishes over choice sites.