Photography, at its best, can heighten our awareness, allowing us to see the world more clearly. The same could be said about birding. And when we combine the two, magical things happen.
Focusing our attention on the winged wonders that share our planet can reveal everything from the finest details to the largest patterns of life, as shown by many of the 8,770 images and 261 videos entered in this year’s contest. From the admissions focused on native flora for our Plants for Birds category to the more artistic compositions for the Fisher Prize, our judges were once again amazed by the beauty and breadth of entries. We thank all 2,416 photographers for sharing their visions with us.
This year we expanded the competition with two new prizes: a Video Award, for a new video category, and a Female Bird Prize, awarded to the best photograph of a female bird across all divisions. We also continued our tradition of bestowing the Fisher Prize on the image that takes the most creative approach to photographing birds, and a Plants for Birds Award to the top photograph depicting the relationship between native plants and birds
One trend became clear after the judging was completed: In contrast to recent years, few of the winning images emerged from far-flung expeditions. Most were taken by photographers working close to home. This may be a reflection of the many ways that birds provided solace during the challenging and restrictive conditions brought on by the pandemic.
The 2021 APA Judges
Amateur, Professional, Youth, Plants for Birds, Grand, and Fisher Prizes:
- Sabine Meyer, photography director, National Audubon Society
- Kathy Moran, deputy director of photography, National Geographic Partners
- Allen Murabayashi, chairman and co-founder, PhotoShelter
- John Rowden, senior director for bird-friendly communities, National Audubon Society
- Tara Tanaka, wildlife photographer and videographer
- Mike Fernandez, video producer, National Audubon Society
- Sean Graesser, biologist and conservation photographer and videographer
- Tara Tanaka, wildlife photographer and videographer
Female Bird Prize:
Founders of the Galbatross Project: Brooke Bateman, Stephanie Beilke, Martha Harbison, Purbita Saha, Joanna Wu
Judging criteria: technical quality, originality, artistic merit
Grand Prize: Carolina Fraser
- Category: Amateur
- Species: Greater Roadrunner
- Location: Los Novios Ranch, Cotulla, Texas
- Camera: Nikon D500 with Nikon 500mm f/4.0 lens; 1/3200 second at f/6.3; ISO 2000
- Story Behind the Shot: One of my favorite places to take photographs is among the oil pumps and open space at Los Novios Ranch in South Texas, where wildlife weaves through cacti and birds perch on fence posts. On a blazing hot summer day just before sunset, I found myself lying facedown at an uncomfortable angle, my elbows digging into a gravel path as I photographed this roadrunner. I manually adjusted the white balance until I captured the bird bathed in golden sunlight as it took a dust bath.
- Bird Lore: An icon of the southwest, the Greater Roadrunner is uniquely adapted for living on the ground in dry country. It can run considerable distances at 20 miles per hour and derive the moisture it needs from lizards, rodents, and other prey. When water is available, it drinks readily, but it seldom if ever uses water for bathing. Instead, frequent dust baths are the rule for roadrunners, along with sunbathing on cool mornings.
Amateur Award Winner: Robin Ulery
- Species: Sandhill Crane
- Location: Johns Lake, Winter Garden, Florida
- Camera: Sony A9 with Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens; 1/800 second at f 6.3; ISO 1600
- Story Behind the Shot: For three years I’ve watched a pair of Sandhill Cranes that nest near my house, observing and photographing them from my kayak. On a blustery day this spring, I took my camera and paddled out to check on them. Two colts had finally hatched. The wind, though, made for a challenging photo shoot. There was no solid land to anchor to, and I bounced up and down, sometimes missing the birds completely. So I increased my shutter speed and ISO to compensate. Capturing this scene under those conditions felt like a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
- Bird Lore: Sandhill Cranes have long childhoods. The youngsters—called “colts” for their long-legged, awkward look—learn to fly after about two months, but then stay with their parents for another seven or eight months, until the following spring. When cranes are very young, like the one in this portrait, they spend much of their time in physical contact with one of their parents, nestled under a wing or among the feathers of their back.
Fisher Prize: Patrick Coughlin
- Category: Amateur
- Species: Anna’s Hummingbird
- Location: Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve, Berkeley, California
- Camera: Nikon D500 with AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens; 1/1600 second at f/5.6; ISO 1400
- Story Behind the Shot: For me, photographing feeding hummingbirds is a near-perfect combination of challenge and reward. In the spring, Anna’s, Allen’s, Rufous, Costa’s, and Calliope Hummingbirds—many of them adult males with glittering gorgets—sip nectar from purple pride of Madeira flowers in this preserve. When I looked through the photographs that I shot one spring day, this image of a relatively unassuming female, a juvenile Anna’s Hummingbird, immediately grabbed my attention. Though most of the bird is obscured by blooms, I caught that momentary flicker of eye contact through the petals.
- Bird Lore: Hummingbirds are often described as preferring to feed at red tubular flowers. While many such flowers may have evolved specifically to be pollinated by hummingbirds, that does not mean the birds ignore other kinds. Anna’s Hummingbird, present year-round in most of its range, must adapt to whatever blooms are available. It quickly learns which flowers are providing nectar at a given time and will focus on those, regardless of color or shape.
Female Bird Prize: Elizabeth Yicheng Shen
- Category: Amateur
- Species: Northern Harrier
- Location: Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont, California
- Camera: Sony a9 with Sony 400mm f/2.8 GM FE OSS lens and 2x Teleconverter; 1/2000 second at f/5.6; ISO 1600
- Story Behind the Shot: I was waiting for Fernando the Chilean Flamingo to wake up from his afternoon nap. People have reported seeing the lone flamingo in the park since 2010, so I went out to photograph him. A commotion from the nearby water, where a Great Blue Heron stalked prey and a few gulls rested, attracted my attention. A Northern Harrier had come out of nowhere to hunt. I quickly adjusted my camera settings so I could get her owl-like face. This kind of unexpected encounter is why I always carry my camera when I venture into nature.
- Bird Lore: Northern Harriers hunt by gliding low over open marshes and fields, watching and listening for prey. When the slender raptors detect a small mammal or bird, they abruptly turn, hover briefly, and then drop. Even an experienced adult may succeed in making the catch only about one-third of the time. Young harriers—like this juvenile, which is identifiable as a female by her brown eyes—may have a much lower success rate at first, but their skills improve with practice.
Youth Award Winner: Arav Karighattam
- Species: Purple Sandpiper
- Location: Rockport, Massachusetts
- Camera: Nikon D850 with AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens; 1/800 second at f/7.1; ISO 320
- Story Behind the Shot: I was searching for eiders, scoters, and other diving ducks along the Atlantic coast on a cold February day. Suddenly a Purple Sandpiper flock landed right next to me. The birds fed, chatted, chirped, and chased each other, occasionally fluttering up when the waves washed over the shore. As the weather turned gustier, the sandpipers preened and settled down amid the rocks. I lay down flat, close to the water’s edge. I positioned my camera, resting it on a rock, and focused on one of the Arctic visitors, the purple in its feathers highlighted by the morning sun.
- Bird Lore: No other members of the sandpiper family have such a northerly range, on a year-round basis, as Purple Sandpipers. These tough birds thrive in the harshest conditions. From their Arctic breeding grounds, they drift south in late fall to places where icy ocean waves crash violently onto coastal rocks. The sandpipers are perfectly at home in this turbulent scene, clambering about to seek tiny crustaceans and even sleeping peacefully among the boulders.
Professional Award Winner: Steve Jessmore
- Species: Northern Cardinal
- Location: Rural Muskegon County, Michigan
- Camera: Sony a9 II with Sony FE 200- 600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens; 1/5000 second at f/6.3; ISO 250
- Story Behind the Shot: On a bitterly cold winter day I went searching for eagles and Snowy Owls in rural Michigan. Cruising side roads, I noticed a Rough-legged Hawk perched atop a pine tree, but all I captured was its tail as it flew away. It was then that I spotted a male Northern Cardinal flying from plant to plant, feeding on the seeds, his red feathers reflected in the bright white snow flecked with ice crystals. I took the first shot when he took flight. By the second frame, the striking songbird was gone.
- Bird Lore: Our familiar redbird is called “Northern” Cardinal to distinguish it from other cardinals in the tropics. Within our borders, it is most numerous toward the south. Seven U.S. states have chosen it as their official state bird, but curiously, none of those is in the Deep South. It may be that cardinals are most popular where people can enjoy the stunning sight of the brilliant red males against winter snow.
Video Award Winner: Bill Bryant
- Species: Red-tailed Hawk
- Location: Golden, Colorado
- Camera: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM and Canon Extender EF 2x III; 1/60 second at f/8; ISO 100
- Story Behind the Shot: Over several days I watched a pair of Red-tails taking advantage of the strong early summer winds streaming down from the Rockies, hovering in midair while scanning the foothills for mice and ground squirrels. This one floated almost level with my lens. His head stayed still while his body moved, his wings and tail steadying him and his dangling feet acting as ballast.
- Bird Lore: Red-tailed Hawks most often hunt from a raised perch, as flying low enough to scan for prey usually requires more flapping and more energy. At times, however, wind conditions are such that they can hang motionless, hardly moving their wings, resting in the air as they study the ground below.
Plants for Birds Award Winner: Shirley Donald
- Species: Red-winged Blackbird
- Location: Blue Sea, Quebec, Canada
- Camera: Canon EOS-1DX Mark II with Canon EF 400 f/4 DO lens and Canon Extender EF 2x III; 1/2000 second at f/8; ISO 1600
- Story Behind the Shot: On an early July morning, I peeled the camouflage tarp off my canoe hidden in the marsh grasses along the edge of a small lake and stepped in, careful not to tip over. Paddling out amid the water lilies, I saw male Red-winged Blackbirds pluck dragonflies from the air to feed their nestlings. Females took a different tack: They hopped from lily pad to lily pad, plucking out insects inside the yellow and white flowers. I steadied my camera by setting it on my equipment bag, which was sitting on the floor, and shot away.
- Bird Lore: In summer North American marshes come alive with Red-winged Blackbirds. Males are conspicuous as they sing and defend territories, while the more cryptically colored females do most of the actual work of raising young. This female, seeking food for her nestlings, employs a technique called “gaping.” Sticking her bill into the closed bloom of the water lily, she then opens her bill wide to spread the flower open, exposing insects hiding inside.
Amateur Honorable Mention: Tom Ingram
- Species: Peregrine Falcon
- Location: La Jolla Cove, California
- Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III with Canon 600mm f/4 IS II with Canon 1.4x III Teleconverter; 1/1250 second at f/8; ISO 2500
- Story Behind the Shot: I had heard that a pair of Peregrine Falcons had built a nest near a cliffside hiking trail in La Jolla, so on a spring day I set off with the hopes of photographing them. As I walked, the raptors made screea calls and circled above. I stopped along the trail and watched a bird that had snatched an Acorn Woodpecker, commonly found in the palm trees nearby. The raptor landed on a ledge littered with feathers from past kills and began plucking the woodpecker, the feathers fluttering over the cliff’s edge as it prepared its meal.
- Bird Lore: Masters of the air, Peregrine Falcons are capable of capturing or killing practically any bird, from rapid fliers like swifts to geese larger than themselves. Peregrines are most famous for spectacular dives from great heights, plunging at speeds up to 200 miles per hour to strike prey out of the air, but they have other hunting methods. These falcons are likely to take a bird like a woodpecker in a short, powerful burst of level flight.
Youth Honorable Mention: Josiah Launstein
- Species: Canada Goose
- Location: Burnaby Lake, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
- Camera: Nikon D7100 with AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4D IF-ED lens and Nikon TC-14E II 1.4x Teleconverter; 1/640 second at f/7.1; ISO 720
- Story Behind the Shot: I was photographing Green-winged Teal when one extremely territorial Canada Goose charged another goose that attempted to land in the area. I positioned myself at the edge of the water and watched for signs of its next onslaught, taking a short sequence of pictures as the goose launched itself from the water to fend off the intruder. I was happy that some Green-winged Teal swam into the scene, their quiet feeding a marked contrast to the goose’s dramatic behavior. I guess the goose was determined to keep its corner of the wetlands all to itself.
- Bird Lore: Canada Geese can be very aggressive, as many a person has discovered by getting too close to a nest. Their instinct to defend their territory is intense during the breeding season, when pairs actively drive away their own kind as well as other large intruders. Winter flocks are usually more peaceful. But as spring approaches, even a lone bird may shift into territorial mode and begin chasing away other geese.
Plants for Birds Honorable Mention: Karen Boyer Guyton
- Species: Anna’s Hummingbird
- Location: Quilcene, Washington
- Camera: Sony a7R IV with a Sony FE 70-200mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens; 1/5000 second at f/4; ISO 800
- Story Behind the Shot: Here in western Washington, Anna’s Hummingbirds are year-round residents. In spring females collect nesting material. Because I have some mobility issues, I do a great deal of my photography right outside my door. Getting the right lighting is always a bit tricky, and timing the hummingbirds’ visits to my patio is always a guess, so I’ve become very patient and observant. One of my favorite subjects is the Anna’s as they collect cattail fluff. I find this hummingbird shows a certain elegance as she gently tugs the seed fibers from the cattail.
- Bird Lore: Hummingbird nests are amazing structures: tiny, strong but flexible, capable of stretching as the baby birds grow. To build them, females must seek out the most delicate materials in nature—like spider webs and plant down—to form the felted walls of the nest. As the heads of cattails begin to disintegrate to disperse their seeds to the wind, they make a perfect source for the kind of light fluff that the hummingbirds need.
Video Honorable Mention: Brent Cizek
- Species: Great Gray Owl
- Location: Koochiching County, Minnesota
- Camera: Canon EOS R5 with EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens; 1/250 second at f/4.0; ISO 800
- Story Behind the Shot: I spent a morning on northern Minnesota’s backroads searching for an elusive Great Gray Owl. A heavy band of snowfall was in the forecast, and I wanted to get footage of an owl hunting in the winter weather. After a few passes in my truck, I spied one sitting in a tree near the road. While the snow came down like crazy, I filmed the owl before it retreated to the woods to roost.
- Bird Lore: Winter conditions don’t seem to bother the Great Gray, North America’s largest owl. Feathers make up much of its apparent bulk, and its thick plumage allows it to thrive in subzero temps. It will plunge 18 inches into drifts to catch mice and other prey its keen ears detect moving under the deep snow.
Professional Honorable Mention: Steve Jessmore
- Species: Red-tailed Hawk
- Location: Kensington Metropark, Milford Township, Michigan
- Camera: Sony a9ii with Sony FE 200- 600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS lens; 1/2000 second at f/7.1; ISO 3200
- Story Behind the Shot: I was hiking on a snowy, dark winter afternoon with a new camera and lens combination when a friend spotted a female Red-tailed Hawk. She flew out of sight, but we found her nearby jumping and grabbing leaves, trying to get her missed prey to reappear. When an eastern chipmunk ran from beneath the debris a few minutes later, the hawk quickly caught it and carried it to a tree. It was incredible to see that connection between predator and prey—one that I don’t usually get to share in a wildlife photo.
- Bird Lore: The most widespread of the soaring hawks in North America, the Red-tail also has the most generalized diet: At any given place and time, it hunts whatever prey animals are most readily available. It may focus on squirrels or rats in city parks, snakes in high desert regions, or jackrabbits on sagebrush flats. Chipmunks are common prey in some places; even though they provide only a small meal, they’re relatively easy to capture.
These winning images originally ran in the Summer 2021 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.