2012 Bird Madness Winner: American Kestrel

Meet the champ of our second annual people’s choice competition

The American kestrel sits on her curved perch looking over her shoulder. Her rusty-red wings, black-slashed cheeks, and white ankle feathers stand out against a blurred, tawny background. She could be in a studio posing for her portrait. In fact, she’s in the middle of a snowy cornfield, taking a break from hunting mice. Fi Rust sits in her car 75 feet away, watching and photographing the magnificent bird.

Rust, 58, has been a nature photographer for 23 years. Her kestrel shot won big this year: It took home the prize for Best Professional image in Audubon magazine’s fourth annual Photo Awards and was crowned winner of “Bird Madness,” the online “March Madness”–style competition decided by Audubon’s readers.

The British-born photographer took her award-winning photo on Valentine’s Day, 2012. The perch is a stalk of dried mullein she found in the cornfield and set up, hoping a raptor would alight. Within 10 minutes the little female kestrel had landed. “I love the way she’s looking to the side, and you get to see the white feathers by her feet,” Rust says. “Everything about her is so pretty.”

Rust takes bird photos like this one from her car to avoid disturbing her subjects. She often positions her camera so the image background will blur, to better highlight the bird. (In her kestrel shot, the tawny background is dried corn.)

She says that with a telephoto lens, only a shallow area of the image will be in focus. Putting up perches allows her to set up the shot properly before a bird flies in. It’s a way for Rust—formerly a graphic designer and 3-D animator—to photograph wild nature yet use her artistic eye. “This is my favorite kind of a shot, where it looks more like a painting,” she says.

Before becoming a professional photographer, Rust worked and lived in Los Angeles. She began her photography career in Florida after a vacation from LA prompted her to stay. There she took shots of wading birds like wood storks and roseate spoonbills. She moved to Colorado on a whim at age 40, after celebrating her birthday at Rocky Mountain National Park by photographing elk, mountain birds, and other local fauna. “I came out for 10 days and said, ‘I have to be living here by my birthday next year,’ ” she recalls.

Today Rust rents gallery space in a clock-and-watch shop in Boulder. In May she and a friend will travel to Pico Bonito in Honduras—her prize for winning Best Professional image in the Audubon contest. Rust says that her winning photo is a product of luck and many days out in the field. “I have thousands,” she says of her digital photo library. “But then I get one like this, and I say, ‘I don’t need these anymore.’ ”