12 Fascinating Bird Behaviors From the 2018 Audubon Photography Awards

Every year our photo competition attracts entries capturing rare and unusual moments from the avian world. This year was no exception.

Talk to any nature photographer, and they’ll tell you that their best shots often come from patience and keen observation. Sure, there are those impromptu images that happen out of sheer luck, but more often than not a single photograph represents hours or even days of study and dedication. Every year the judges of the Audubon Photography Awards, including myself, are treated to hundreds of photographs capturing unusual or rare bird behaviors. Some are surely a lucky snap, but most are the products of time and patience. This year's awards provided plenty of such shots, and these are some of our favorite moments from the 2018 entrants. 

Related: Check out the 2018 Audubon Photography Awards winners, and the 2018 Audubon Photography Awards Top 100 gallery. 

Mob Threats (above) 

If this young Red-tailed Hawk looks perplexed, that’s not surprising. Less than one year old, it might not yet be accustomed to the fact that big hawks are sometimes pestered, or “mobbed,” by birds much smaller than themselves. The Red-tail weighs about 180 times as much as the tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher pictured here, but that doesn’t deter the smaller bird from swooping in to peck at the hawk’s head. The gnatcatcher might have a nest nearby, or it could just be feeling feisty from having a predator in the neighborhood.

Catching Some Rays

Spend enough time watching herons on sunny days, and eventually you’ll see one adopt an odd posture: wings drooped, partly spread, and slightly upturned, exposing the underside of the wings to the sun. This “delta-wing” posture, as it’s called, has been observed in several kinds of herons, but its purpose isn’t fully understood. It might help with regulating body temperature, or it might help to dislodge mites or other small parasites. Or maybe the birds are just messing with us.

Sneaky Skuas

Penguins in their element—that is, in the water—are incredibly graceful, speedy swimmers. On land, they’re more awkward and vulnerable. Where Gentoo Penguins nest, on rocky islands of the southern oceans and around the Antarctic, there are relatively few predators. But they must constantly watch out for skuas. Distant relatives of the gulls, skuas are powerful and fearless predators, and they will swoop into the middle of a dense penguin colony to snatch any eggs or small young left unguarded.

Seaweed Stealers 

The American Wigeon is classified as one of the dabbling ducks—that is, it finds its food near the water’s surface, by dipping its head or upending in the shallows, not by diving underwater. Often, though, wigeons are seen on fairly deep waters, associating with coots or diving ducks. But they’re not going hungry out there. When an unsuspecting diver, like the coot in this photo, comes up with some food, a wigeon often darts in to steal it.

Not a Caracara in the World   

Widespread in the American tropics, Yellow-headed Caracaras are birds of open country, and they have expanded their range in many areas as forests have been cleared. They’re often seen in pastures, perching on cattle. The opportunistic birds watch for large insects or other small prey flushed from the grass by the grazing animals, but they’ll also pick ticks off of their bovine companions, who don’t appear to mind.

Drinking Buddies

In the non-breeding season, bluebirds gather in flocks, and large numbers often arrive together at the water’s edge. As these Western Bluebirds are demonstrating, most birds can’t create the suction to drink continuously; instead, they must take a billful of water and then tilt their heads back to let the water run down their throats. Since they don’t all take sips in unison, at any given moment some have their heads up and can watch for approaching danger. 

With This Fish I Thee Wed

In mating season, some male birds put on some truly bizarre courtship displays to attract the attention of females. Terns are more practical: Although their displays can involve graceful flights and stylized bowing and posturing, one of the most important elements is courtship feeding, in which the male presents the female with a fish. This feeding isn’t just for show; it continues to be frequent even after the female has laid eggs in the nest, helping to sustain her as she does most of the incubating.

Related: Read more about how to photograph avian courtship displays.

Tough Old Coots

Brash, noisy American Coots are common on marshy ponds and lakes over much of North America. They’re very sociable birds, but that doesn’t mean they get along peacefully. In fact, fights are frequent. Coots in conflict may begin by pecking each other, but they soon rear up and start flailing with their big feet, each bird trying to claw the other or force it down underwater. Sometimes they cause serious injury, but more often the losing bird breaks free and swims away, pursued by the raucous winner.

Related: Read more about the American Coot's big weird feet. 

Dressed for (Mating) Success 

In swamps of the southeastern states, Anhingas are commonly seen swimming and diving, or perched in waterside trees. At most seasons, the fanciest thing about them is the white pattern on their wings and scapulars. In breeding season, they step up their game: The dull brownish skin on their faces turns bright pale blue to turquoise. When they fluff up their neck feathers and posture with their spearlike bills, as this male (left) and female are doing, they undoubtedly ramp up their appeal to the opposite sex.  

Home Improvements   

Most birds, when they build their nests, get them completed and then stop adding to them. For Bald Eagles, however, the process is never finished. A pair of eagles may use the same nest for years, or even for decades, and the adults keep adding material every year. Some long-established nests have measured more than 9 feet across and 12 feet deep. The adult eagle in this photo appears to have a stick too large for use in even the largest nest, and probably wound up dropping it.

Uber but for Swanlings 

Hop aboard: Some kinds of water birds, including loons and grebes, are noted for their habit of letting their young chicks ride on their backs. Our native North American swans, Tundra and Trumpeter, rarely do this. But the Mute Swan, native to Eurasia and introduced to this continent, regularly totes its babies around on its back. The youngsters clamber on from behind and nestle between the wings, which are often held arched up above the back, as in this photo.

Do I Know You?  

From robins in North American backyards to these Spectacled Weavers in Africa, birds often seem obsessed with their own reflections in mirrors or windows. But it’s not vanity—the birds interpret their reflections as potential rivals, and seek to drive them away. While some African weaver species are quite sociable, nesting in large colonies, pairs of Spectacled Weavers maintain separate territories, and these two are probably defending their turf against the phantom rivals in the glass.


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