Birds make fascinating subjects, as the winners and honorable mentions of this year’s contest, our 10th, make clear. They’re at once beautiful and resilient, complex and comical. It's no wonder why we love them so.
The images that won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards, presented in association with Nature's Best Photography, are as impressive as ever, but attentive readers might notice a few more images than usual. That's because we've added two awards. The Plants for Birds category is inspired by Audubon's Plants for Birds program, supported by Coleman and Susan Burke, which provides resources for choosing and finding plants native to zip codes in the United States. This category poses a new challenge to photographers: Don't just capture an incredible moment—make sure it also features a bird and plant native to the location in which the photo was taken in order to highlight the critical role native habitat plays in supporting bird life. And in the spirit of Kevin Fisher, Audubon's longtime creative director who recently retired, the Fisher Prize recognizes a creative approach to photographing birds that blends originality with technical expertise. The winning image, which Kevin himself selected from among the finalists, pushes the bounds of traditional bird photography.
We want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all 2,253 entrants, hailing from all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and 10 Canadian provinces and territories. Your dedication to appreciating, celebrating, and sharing the wonder of birds and the landscapes they inhabit inspires us now and throughout the year.
The 2019 APA Judges
Steve Freligh, publisher, Nature’s Best Photography
Melissa Groo, wildlife photographer and winner of the 2015 contest’s Grand Prize
Kenn Kaufman, bird expert and Audubon magazine field editor
Sabine Meyer, photography director, National Audubon Society
Allen Murabayashi, chairman and co-founder, PhotoShelter
John Rowden, director of community conservation, National Audubon Society
Judging criteria: technical quality, originality, artistic merit
Grand Prize Winner: Kathrin Swoboda
Species: Red-winged Blackbird
Location: Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria, Virginia
Camera: Nikon D500 with Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens; 1/800 second at f/6.3; ISO 2500
Story Behind the Shot: I visit this park near my home to photograph blackbirds on cold mornings, often aiming to capture the "smoke rings" that form from their breath as they sing out. On this occasion, I arrived early on a frigid day and heard the cry of the blackbirds all around the boardwalk. This particular bird was very vociferous, singing long and hard. I looked to set it against the dark background of the forest, shooting to the east as the sun rose over the trees, backlighting the vapor.
Bird Lore: Red-winged Blackbirds are some of the most abundant and conspicuous birds in North America. Beginning in early spring, males perch above marshes, pond edges, damp fields, and roadside ditches, flaring their red shoulder patches and belting out arresting songs to announce their claims to breeding territories.
Amateur Winner: Mariam Kamal
Species: White-necked Jacobin
Location: Dave & Dave’s Nature Park, Sarapiqui, Costa Rica
Camera: Nikon D3300 with Tamron SP AF 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD lens; 1/250 second at f/6.3; ISO 200
Story Behind the Shot: On my fifth trip to Costa Rica, my favorite birding spots produced a few measly sightings. So I drove six hours to a reforestation site, which turned out to be well worth the trip. For an hour I photographed a valiant troop of White-necked Jacobins consuming nectar from heliconias that swayed and bobbed in a forceful wind. I could barely breathe as I snapped—I felt that I, too, was fighting to hang on!
Bird Lore: Of the 350-plus species of hummingbirds, most have small geographic ranges. Bucking the trend is the White-necked Jacobin, common from southern Mexico to southern Brazil. It succeeds by being adaptable, occupying a wide variety of tropical forest and edge habitats.
Youth Winner: Sebastian Velasquez
Species: Horned Puffin
Location: Alaska SeaLife Center (accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums), Seward, Alaska
Camera: Canon EOS Rebel t7i with Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens; 1/800 second at f/11; ISO 1600
Story Behind the Shot: Traveling through Alaska I saw Horned and Tufted Puffins from afar, always hoping to get closer. I got my chance at the SeaLife Center. Amid the chaos of native birds swimming, fishing, and zipping past me, I waited for hours for the perfect shot. At last I spotted this secluded puffin in a moment of stillness, preening its feathers, providing a glimpse into a seemingly private moment.
Bird Lore: Unlike the Atlantic and Tufted Puffins, which dig tunnels in soil for their nests, the Horned Puffin usually lays its single egg deep in a crevice among rocks. Such nest sites are harder to access for study, and the habits of this North Pacific species are not as well known as those of its relatives.
Professional Winner: Elizabeth Boehm
Species: Greater Sage-Grouse
Location: Pinedale, Wyoming
Camera: Canon EOS 6D with Canon 500mm EF f/4 L IS USM lens; 1/1500 second at f/5.6; ISO 800
Story Behind the Shot: I spent a number of cold spring mornings photographing the courting display of the Greater Sage-Grouse from a blind on the perimeter of the lek. Along with the strutting, I watch for the dominance fights between males. The two contestants sit side by side until, upon some invisible cue, they suddenly throw blows, hitting each other with their wings. This photo, captured on hard snowpack, shows the power they exhibit when they are fighting for mates.
Bird Lore: On a Greater Sage-Grouse dancing ground, or lek, the stakes are high. Many males may display there, but most females that visit will mate with one of the few dominant males at the center of the lek. As a result, genes passed on to the next generation will tend to be those of the strongest males.
Plants for Birds Winner: Michael Schulte
Species: Hooded Oriole
Location: San Diego, California
Camera: Canon 7D Mark II with Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC lens; 1/800 second at f/6.3; ISO 1600
Story Behind the Shot: Soon after moving to San Diego last year, I noticed a pair of orioles that frequented the California fan palm in my backyard. When I saw the female gathering palm fibers for a nest, I grabbed my camera. I love this shot; it shows the relationship between two native species and illustrates the natural beauty to be appreciated even in a city. And the radiating palm fronds behind the female give a sense of radiance to her diligent efforts.
Bird Lore: Orioles build hanging nests, weaving plant fibers for a lightweight but durable structure. Living in subtropical climates, the Hooded Oriole finds the perfect building material in the long, strong fibers of palms. It often fastens its nest under a leaf of California fan palm; "Palm-leaf Oriole" was an old alternative name for this bird.
Fisher Prize Winner: Ly Dang
Species: Black-browed Albatross
Location: Saunders Island, Falkland Islands
Camera: Nikon D850 with Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED AF-S VR lens; 1/4000 second at f/8.0; ISO 400
Story Behind the Shot: On a steep, windy slope of Saunders Island, several breeding colonies of Black-browed Albatrosses were tending their chicks and squawking at the neighbors to urge them to respect the territories. As I sat watching the birds conducting their daily activities, I started to notice the simple, elegant beauty of the adults’ eyes. After several positions looking for a clear view and a good light angle, I took this shot.
Bird Lore: Spending most of their lives at sea in southern oceans, Black-browed Albatrosses are masters of the air, soaring and gliding effortlessly on incredibly long wings. On the Falkland Islands they share nesting colonies with penguins—the opposite of albatrosses in flying ability, but birds also supremely adapted to a life at sea.
Amateur Honorable Mention: Melissa Rowell
Species: Great Blue Heron
Location: Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach, Florida
Camera: Nikon D500 with Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR lens; 1/1250 second at f/5.6; ISO 640
Story Behind the Shot: A storm was on the horizon when I arrived at one of my favorite wetlands. These herons immediately grabbed my attention: The male, obviously attempting to entice the female, was doing a stretch display. I love this mating ritual and decided to spend some time with them. When serious bill duels erupted between the pair, I was fascinated by their intense expressions as they sparred. The drama was further heightened as, thunder rumbling in the distance, the wind picked up, accentuating their long, flowing plumes.
Bird Lore: Equipped with sinewy necks and spear-like bills, Great Blue Herons can lunge with fearsome speed to strike their aquatic prey. Adults will also employ rapid stabbing motions as one aspect of their complex courtship displays; they’re seemingly dangerous moves, but fitting to the intensity of mating season.
Professional Honorable Mention: Kevin Ebi
Species: Bald Eagle
Location: San Juan Island National Historical Park, Friday Harbor, Washington
Camera: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with Canon EF 600mm f/4 IS lens; 1/320 second at f/11; ISO 1600
Story Behind the Shot: I had spent the day photographing foxes and was panning with this kit running with its prey when an unmistakable cry made me look up. I just knew the eagle racing our way was after the fox’s rabbit. I expected to have only a split second to capture the theft in one explosive frame; instead the eagle snagged the fox and rabbit, carrying both 20 feet off the ground. After eight seconds it dropped the fox, seemingly unharmed, and flew away with its stolen dinner.
Bird Lore: Bald Eagles eat pretty much anything they want to. Their penchant for dining on carrion may seem less than regal, but they are also powerful predators and pirates. They capture a wide variety of fish, mammals, and birds, and don’t hesitate to steal others’ prey.
Plants for Birds Honorable Mention: Joseph Przybyla
Species: Purple Gallinule
Location: Circle B Bar Reserve, Lakeland, Florida
Camera: Nikon D500 with Nikon 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 VRII AF-S ED lens; 1/1000 second at f/5.6; ISO 1800
Story Behind the Shot: The normally elusive Purple Gallinule comes into the open when fire flag blooms, climbing the plant to feed on its flowers. I spotted this one making its way up the plant mid-morning on an overcast day, eating as it went. I set up with my monopod and camera, watching, waiting. When it reached the top, I captured images as it moved from stem to stem, moving quickly, side to side, up and down, choosing the best angle, and ultimately getting this photo of the bird mid-snack.
Bird Lore: The Purple Gallinule seems to combine the best traits of its rail relatives. Like true rails, it slips through dense marshes; like the coots, it swims and dives expertly on open water. When food beckons, it uses its garish yellow feet to clamber higher, even into trees.
Youth Honorable Mention: Garrett Sheets
Location: Dunn Ranch Prairie, Lincoln Township, Missouri
Camera: Canon EOS 60D with Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens; 1/1250 second at f/6.3; ISO 400
Story Behind the Shot: At sunset the Dunn Ranch Prairie becomes a field of golden grasses, which provided a perfect setting for this male as he perched briefly for a curious glance at my camera. The robotic tone of his song was echoed by dozens of other Bobolinks as they flew overhead. I was almost too excited to take the photo, but I secured a burst of photos before he took off, flying far out over the grasses.
Bird Lore: Most songbirds nesting in grasslands of the United States and Canada are short-distance migrants at most. The Bobolink is a striking exception, vacating North America entirely in fall, spending midwinter south of the Equator in South America. Bobolinks molt before migrating, the male trading his snappy summer plumage for subtle buff-brown tones.
These winning images originally ran in the Summer 2019 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.