The seventh annual contest came down to the wire—a true photo finish.April 21, 2016
Participants: More than 1,700
Images entered: Nearly 7,000
Categories: Amateur, Professional, Fine Art, Youth
Entrants from: 50 states, 6 provinces, District of Columbia
Kenn Kaufman: Bird-guide author, Audubon field editor
Melissa Groo: Professional photographer and 2015 Grand Prize winner
Steve Freligh: Co-publisher of Nature's Best Photography
Kevin Fisher: Audubon creative director
Sabine Meyer: Audubon photography director
Judging criteria: Technical quality, originality, artistic merit
Grand Prize Winner Bonnie Block
Species: Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron
Location: Seabeck, WA
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a Canon 500mm f/4 IS II USM lens; 1/1600 second at f/6.3; ISO 800, manual mode
Snap Judgement: Seabeck is a small town on the edge of the Hood Canal, in western Washington. In early summer Great Blue Herons and Bald Eagles converge here to feast on fish that get trapped in the exposed oysterbeds at low tide. While both species catch their own fish, the eagles are especially fond of harassing the herons for their catch. They charge at the herons, which at times release their prey with a loud squawk, dropping the fish back into the water. Though they’re not always successful, the eagles seem to take pleasure in trying to steal a meal.
Bird Lore: The majestic Bald Eagle and America’s largest heron are both top-level predators, and they often pursue the same prey. Where concentrations of fish bring them together, clashes may erupt. In a direct standoff, the herons will usually yield to the eagles, but not without a noisy protest.
Professional Winner Dick Dickinson
Location: Siesta Key, Sarasota, FL
Camera: Nikon D700 with a Nikkor 600mm f/4 lens; 1/1600 second at f/7.1; ISO 400
Snap Judgement: I have lived in Florida all my life, and watching the Ospreys around the bays is a constant delight. For this shot I was photographing an active nest off the end of a dock on the south end of Siesta Key. Both of the adults were active around the nest; this one was taking off from a nearby perch on its way back to the nest.
Bird Lore: Perfectly adapted for feeding on fish, Ospreys are classified in a family by themselves. They have keen eyesight like other raptors, but the act of plunging feet-first to catch fish below the water’s surface requires special skills; young Ospreys must practice for some time before they master the technique.
Amateur Winner Steve Torna
Species: Eared Grebe
Location: Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming
Camera: Canon EOS 7D with a Canon 500mm f/4L IS lens; 1/400 second at f/8: ISO 320
Snap Judgement: In May 2014 I was fortunate to see hundreds, perhaps a thousand, migrating Eared Grebes floating in a tight flock between the ice and the shore on Yellowstone Lake. I was drawn to their bright-red eyes, their golden “ears,” and the way the flock created a colorful natural pattern. With their heads tucked into their feathers, the birds seemed harmonious and peaceful. They were silent—I never once heard a vocalization—and I felt a sense of gratitude that I could witness this tranquil and serene moment.
Bird Lore: Of the 20 species of grebes, the Eared Grebe—called the Black-necked Grebe in the Old World—is probably the most numerous. Its population in western North America has been estimated at more than four million, and its nesting colonies on marshy lakes may include hundreds of pairs.
Youth Winner Carolina Anne Fraser
Species: Great Frigatebird
Location: Near Española, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Camera: Nikon D7200 with a Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED lens at 300 mm; 1/2500 second at f5.6; ISO 250
Snap Judgement: On a family vacation in the Galápagos, I was taking pictures when Great Frigatebirds started landing on our boat. The rocking boat, as well as the heat and brilliant Galápagos sun were a challenge, but I braced myself, checked my settings, and focused on the birds’ behavior. Great Frigatebirds, which are graceful and acrobatic in flight, often eat fish from the ocean’s surface, and harass other birds like Blue-footed Boobies for their prey. These two seemed to be challenging each other for a seat on our boat.
Bird Lore: Frigatebirds are the most aerial of all ocean birds. They have to be: With tiny feet, long wings, and a lack of waterproofing in their plumage, they are ill-suited for swimming or taking off from the water. But they can stay aloft for days, probably even sleeping on the wing, until they reach an island or ship where they can perch.
Fine Art Winner Barbara Driscoll
Species: Green Violetear
Location: Savegre Hotel, San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica
Camera: Canon EOS 70D with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, 349mm; 1/1600 second at f/6.3; ISO 1250
Snap Judgement: A friend and I were taking pictures of hummingbirds in Costa Rica, and decided that while some have to be shot from a specific angle to look good, there are no bad angles for taking pictures of the Green Violetear. This day it had rained, and the birds were perching on an agave plant in front of the lodge, trying to dry out. The nontypical portrait from the back, the way the angle of the bill matched the point on the agave, and how the bird spread its feathers, displaying that beautiful rainbow of color, made me feel I had achieved a shot that managed to capture the bird's spectacular texture and color.
Bird Lore: One of the most widespread of all hummingbird species, the Green Violetear lives in highland forests from Mexico south to Bolivia. Within this broad range it is nomadic, moving around with the seasons. Such wanderings have brought it north of the Mexican border on many occasions, even reaching southern Canada.
Amateur Honorable Mention Artur Stankiewicz
Species: Black-winged Stilt
Location: Salt pans near Skala Kallonis, Lesbos Island, Greece
Camera: Nikon D810 with a Nikkon AF-S 600mm F4G ED VR lens; 1/1000 second at f/6.3; ISO 400
Snap Judgement: Lesbos is one of Europe’s best-known birding spots because so many birds migrate through. Still, for some reason, the numbers in early May 2015 were way down. Despite the discouraging situation, I spent my last day on a concrete slab by the salt pans, trying for photos of stilts and avocets. I was finally able to get this shot of a stilt hunting water bugs.
Bird Lore: With thin bills and bizarrely long, thin legs, stilts are well adapted to wading in shallows, nabbing tiny prey. It’s a successful niche for stilts on six continents, but they represent only a few distinct types. Some experts lump most of them, including the Black-necked Stilt of North America, into just one species.
Amateur Honorable Mention Colleen Gara
Species: Common Raven
Location: Banff NP, Alberta
Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Tamron SP 150-600mm; f5-6.3 Di VC USD lens at 600 mm; 1/250 second at f/8; ISO 640
Snap Judgement: Besides being known for their intelligence, ravens are thought to mate for life. When I spotted this pair one morning, I tried to stay as still as possible. I wanted them to act naturally. Soon they began to preen each other. It was amazing to feel that these birds were comfortable in my presence. I zoomed in, and got this intimate shot.
Bird Lore: Classified in the same family as jays and crows, the Common Raven is technically considered a songbird, the world’s largest. Driven from large parts of North America by civilization in centuries past, this adaptable bird is now recolonizing many areas.
Fine Art Honorable Mention Blake Shaw
Species: Turkey Vulture
Location: Near San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico
Camera: Nikon D7100 with a Tamron 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD AF lens at 150 mm; 1/3200 second at f/6.3; ISO 560
Snap Judgement: South of San Felipe, there are many stands of cardon cactus, which are often excellent spots to find birds such as Gila Woodpeckers, Ash-throated Flycatchers, and Ospreys. One evening I noticed a group of Turkey Vultures roosting in a stand of cardon cactus about 75 yards away. I quickly positioned myself so that the colors of the sky after sunset would be behind the cacti. One last vulture flew into the roost, and I was lucky to capture it with legs and wings outstretched for landing!
Bird Lore: Scanning the landscape for carrion, Turkey Vultures usually forage alone, but they gather in communal roosts at night. These roosts may serve as “information centers”: Vultures that have failed to find food the previous day may wait to follow those that set off purposefully in the morning.
Amateur Honorable Mention Martin V. Sneary
Species: Piping Plover
Location: North shore of Massachusetts
Camera: Canon EOS 7D MarkII with a Canon 600mm f/4 ISII lens and a ground pod; 1/1000 second at f/5.6; ISO 500
Snap Judgement: I was on a beach in Massachusetts, crawling on the sand, pushing the camera equipment around on a ground pod, trying not to turn the lens hood in a sand shovel! Sometimes the chicks, oblivious to our presence, would run too close to photograph, and on those occasions it was a wonder to just observe. This shot is my absolute favorite, capturing a rare pause in a usually frantic schedule of feed, brood, feed some more, sprint across the sand, and brood again. It reminds us to take in the joy around us, bask momentarily in the warming sunshine, before we head off again at 100 mph.
Bird Lore: While many sandpipers use long bills to probe in mud for unseen prey, plovers—the other major group of shorebirds—are visual in their approach. With stubby bills and large eyes, Piping Plovers hunt tiny invertebrates on open sand or salt flats, where their pale plumage blends in well.
See this year's Top 100 here.