When John James Audubon explored the American wilderness almost two centuries ago, the concept of photography was still in its infancy. The great artist lived long enough to pose, in the late 1840s, for a daguerreotype. But no doubt he would have been astonished to know that this cumbersome process would evolve so far that it could be used to capture vibrant action pictures of birds in the wild.
Photographic equipment continues to evolve at a dizzying pace. Leading nature photographers of the past—such as the late Allan Cruickshank, whose bird portraits often graced the cover of this magazine in the mid-20th century—would probably be amazed by such developments as autofocus, image stabilization, and the digital revolution. People who take up bird photography today have a remarkable array of tools at their disposal.
See this article's accompanying photo gallery
But even with the proliferation of high-tech gear, the ability to take great bird photos continues to be an elusive art. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it’s not about the camera. The best equipment in the world won’t make you a good photographer. In a similar vein, many people before Audubon had access to paints and brushes and paper, and the birds had always been around, available for portraiture. The difference was in Audubon’s eye and mind, not in the tools he used.
So it is with bird photography today. It helps if you have good cameras and lenses and if you put in a lot of time and hard work. It doesn’t hurt to have a little luck either. But then there’s something more. The best bird photographers have a gift for truly seeing birds, for understanding how they move and how they fit into their surroundings, and for finding those ideal moments that show the birds at their finest. The winners on these pages have captured that crystallized vision of birdlife, reminding us that these are creatures worth admiring and preserving for future generations.
Photographer: Dennis Goulet
Species: Green-breasted Mango
Where: Cordillera de Talamanca, Costa Rica
Camera: Canon EOS 7D; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/200 at f/18; ISO 320
“Typically a hummingbird will come in and feed for 30 to 40 seconds,” says Dennis Goulet, a retired electronics engineer. In this case, however, bees were starting to congregate, forcing the hummers away from the feeders. But “they’re not just flying away,” he adds. “They want to hover there to see if they get another chance to get in.”
Bird Lore: Mangos are large tropical hummingbirds with colorful tails. Most of the seven species are sedentary, but the green-breasted mango is migratory in eastern Mexico, and sometimes wanders farther: Rare strays have appeared at hummingbird feeders as far north as Wisconsin.
Professional, First Place
Photographer: Keith Szafranski
Species: Emperor Penguin
Where: Near Snow Hill Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark II; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/400 at f/8; ISO 100
“There’s a very good possibility that none of those five penguins are related,” says professional photographer Keith Szafranski, who shot about 5,000 pictures of this colony, discovered in 1997. “It looks like a nice family group, but emperors lay only one egg. They do take care of each other’s young. One adult might be taking care of 20 young.”
Bird Lore: Birds of extremes, emperor penguins begin their breeding cycle at the onset of the coldest season. The male emperor incubates the single egg (on his feet!) for two months in the Antarctic winter, through colder temperatures than those endured by any other bird.
Professional, Second Place
Photographer: Keith Szafranski
Species: Bald Eagle
Where: Near Homer, AK
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark II; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/500 at f/5.6; ISO 200
“He’s making a quick turn to come down and get a fish,” says Keith Szafranski, of the bald eagle. “That stuff happens so fast.” In fact, Szafranski almost missed the shot. “In less than an eighth of a second, he flipped over and flipped back. It’s pretty amazing.”
Bird Lore: Despite their size, bald eagles are agile fliers. Slow glides, bursts of speed, and rolls are all common when eagles pursue prey or interact with each other.
Professional, Third Place
Photographer: Robert Amoruso
Species: Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds
Where: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark III; Canon 600mm lens; 1/20 at f/4; ISO 160
At New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, managers plant corn for wintering birds. “They’ll come in and eat the seeds. And for whatever reason, they just flush,” says Robert Amoruso, a professional photographer. “The images, at least for me creatively, look better if you do them at a slow speed.”
Bird Lore: Red-winged blackbirds maintain some individual space in summer, when the males defend nesting territories, but in winter they gather in large flocks. Tens of thousands often roost together in marshes or other sheltered spots.
Amateur, First Place
Photographer: Will J. Sooter
Species: Peregrine Falcon and Willet
Where: La Jolla, CA
Camera: Nikon D300; Nikon 300mm lens with 1.4 extender; 1/1,000 at f/4.5; ISO 200
Will Sooter has been shooting the same pair of peregrine falcons off La Jolla, California, every day for six months in each of the past five years. This day, he says, the female “knocked the willet into the ocean, then tried 30 times to pick it out of the water. But the waves were too big.” Finally the stunned willet washed up on the beach, and the peregrine retrieved it.
Bird Lore: Peregrines on the hunt may reach 200 miles per hour. Even so, they are not always successful. They often hunt near aquatic habitats, taking midsized water birds like this willet.
Amateur, Second Place
Photographer: Brian Hansen
Species: Snowy Owl
Where: Near Milwaukee
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark III; Canon 500mm lens; 1/5,000 at f/5; ISO 320
“I shot this bird just after it had taken off, probably after its third wingbeat,” says Brian Hansen, the general manager of a Kia dealership. Although it appears the owl is looking into the camera lens, “it was totally focused on what it was hunting,” he says.
Bird Lore: This owl shows off an intricate wing pattern and an enigmatic expression. The heavy black markings suggest it’s a young female.
Amateur, Third Place
Photographer: Laura Stafford
Where: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson
Camera: Nikon D90; Nikon 55-200mm lens; 1/200 at f/4.8; ISO 400
“The Desert Museum is one of my favorite places,” says Laura Stafford, a judicial administrative assistant. “This day I was sitting on the patio, and this little guy showed up, not even a foot from me. I got a number of shots, but this was the best one.”
Bird Lore: “Desert cardinal” might be a more descriptive name for the pyrrhuloxia. In the Southwest it may live in the same thickets as the familiar northern cardinal.
Youth, First Place
Photographer: Aidan Briggs
Species: Anna’s Hummingbird
Where: Templeton, CA
Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/1,250 at f/5.6; ISO 320
“I started taking pictures in seventh grade with an old film camera,” says Aidan Briggs, now a high school junior. That early interest led him to a workshop in Morro Bay, California, where he met the legendary Arthur Morris, who became a mentor. Briggs later won a scholarship for high school photographers from the North American Nature Photography Association.
Bird Lore: A common Pacific Coast hummer, Anna’s hummingbird has expanded its range over the past half-century and is now a regular nesting bird east to Arizona and north to Washington and British Columbia.
Youth, Second Place
Photographer: Ryan Watkins
Species: White-breasted Nuthatch
Where: Clare, MI
Camera: Nikon D200; Nikkor 70-300mm lens; 1/320 at f/8; ISO 500
It took great patience for Ryan Watkins to get this image, taken in his backyard. “I was getting shots of various birds,” says the high school junior. “Most of the time just moving the camera to my eye was enough to scare off this nuthatch, but after sitting out there for over two hours, it eventually became accustomed to me and let me get this shot of it.”
Bird Lore: No, the picture isn’t upside down; the bird is. Nuthatches are famous for their acrobatic climbing abilities, often hanging inverted or walking down trees headfirst.
Youth, Third Place
Photographer: Jess Findlay
Where: Summerland, BC
Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Canon 400mm lens; 1/2,000 at f/8; ISO 400
Jess Findlay’s photography is inspired by the birdlife near his home close to Vancouver. He often carries his camera gear with him because, he says, “you never know when you’re going to get a good shot.” Take this killdeer photo, which he took on a family trip to a British Columbia lake. While his family was checking into its hotel, says the recent high school graduate, “I just went down to the beach and got lucky.”
Bird Lore: This plover gets its name not from any threat to deer but from its shrill cries of kil-deeer, kil-deeer, often given in flight.