Birds spend their waking hours seeking to survive, thrive, and care for their families. From behind their lenses, the creators of the photos and videos on these pages capture those meaningful moments. In reading the stories behind each shot, it’s clear that a photographer’s journey to document these scenes, and the memories they form in doing so, are often what makes the resulting images so special to them.
That’s not an experience any artificial intelligence can replicate. So while we can only feature a few standout submissions, we celebrate the stories behind all 9,000 entries to this year’s contest.
The 2023 APA Judges
Amateur, Professional, Youth, Grand, and Fisher Prizes:
- Sabine Meyer, photography director, National Audubon Society
- Preeti Desai, senior director of social media & storytelling, National Audubon Society
- Melissa Hafting, conservation photographer and youth nature educator
- Morgan Heim, conservation photographer, filmmaker, and adventurer
- Noppadol Paothong, nature and conservation photographer
- Marlene Pantin, partnerships manager, plants for birds, National Audubon Society
- Mike Fernandez, video producer, National Audubon Society
- Rina Miele, wildlife photographer and videographer
- Mick Thompson, wildlife photographer and videographer
Female Bird Prize:
- Karine Aigner, conservation photographer
- Founders of the Galbatross Project: Brooke Bateman, Stephanie Beilke, Martha Harbison, Purbita Saha, Joanna Wu
Judging criteria: technical quality, originality, artistic merit
Grand Prize: Liron Gertsman
Species: Rock Pigeon
Location: White Rock, British Columbia, Canada
Camera: Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6L IS II USM @400mm lens; 1/1600 second at f/5.6; ISO 2500
Story Behind the Shot: They may be common and non-native across most of the globe, but Rock Pigeons are amazing birds. They thrive in a wide variety of habitats, including where few other species can: a city center. I rarely point my lens toward pigeons, but I couldn’t resist as this pair, perched under a pier, carefully groomed each other’s feathers. Purposefully exposing for the brighter parts of the image, I used the shadowy environment to create a studio-like black background for these remarkable iridescent birds. I hadn’t planned on photographing pigeons that day, but I’m glad that this couple’s beauty captured my attention.
Bird Lore: Many people tend to ignore pigeons, but admirers of these adaptable, fast-flying birds abound throughout history and include Charles Darwin. Originally native to parts of Europe, northern Africa, and southern Asia, Rock Pigeons have been domesticated for thousands of years, and escaped birds have established feral populations the world over. Pairs of Rock Pigeons stay together during all seasons and generally mate for life, with both sexes taking a full share of incubating their eggs and caring for their young.
Judge’s Take (Preeti Desai): When you take a minute to look closely at a pigeon, you’ll see that they’re quite beautiful. In the right light, their iridescent neck feathers appear to glow. This photo captures not only that beauty but also a behavior that many humans can identify with: The pair are allopreening, an affectionate courtship behavior. I hope photos like this will lead to more appreciation for pigeons and other common birds we see daily.
Professional Award Winner: Shane Kalyn
Species: Atlantic Puffin
Location: Westman Islands, Iceland
Camera: Nikon D500 with a Nikon 500mm lens f/4; 1/6400 second at f/4; ISO 2000
Story Behind the Shot: My wife and I were on a road trip in Iceland, and we took a ferry to the Westman Islands where we’d heard there was a puffin colony. We pulled over at a beautiful spot to stretch our legs. There we saw a lone bird perched on the most amazing lava rock cliff, which was covered in colorful lichen and blooming wildflowers. It was raining and the sky was dark, creating a moody tone. I knew this moment was special: It was the first Atlantic Puffin I’d seen, let alone been able to photograph.
Bird Lore: Puffins are popular birds, even though most people have never seen one. The Atlantic Puffin is widespread in the North Atlantic and adjacent areas of the Arctic Ocean, but Iceland is their epicenter: Up to 2 million pairs nest there, representing close to half the breeding population. Rising sea temperatures have reduced the availability of small fish that puffins need to feed their young, leading to major breeding failures at some Icelandic colonies.
Judge’s Take (Preeti Desai): This photo evokes a painting for me. I love the soft, pastel colors and especially how they pop against the gray backdrop. My eye immediately goes to the puffin because the white and orange stand out, and once I’m done looking there, my eye easily roams around the rest of the photo. Another judge also pointed out that the upper rocks almost form a puffin head with a bill sticking out, and I love that. This is such a peaceful, pleasing moment.
Female Bird Prize: Sandra M. Rothenberg
Species: Baltimore Oriole
Location: Warren, Pennsylvania
Camera: Sony Alpha 1 with a Sony FE 200-600mm F/5.6–6.3 G OSS @459mm lens; 1/1000 second at f/6.3; ISO 1600
Story Behind the Shot: Since I was a child, Baltimore Orioles have nested on our property. I have always loved watching the females: aerial acrobats that collect dried grasses and long gossamer strands of horsehair from my sister’s adjacent farm. The birds use the materials to build their pendulous, pear-shaped nests. What miraculous feats of avian engineering! Once they arrive in May after their long migration north, I use a tiny blind to observe the birds without disturbing them. This female barely landed to grasp a tangled clump of horsehair and natural hemp and sisal fibers caught on a branch. She was surrounded by a lacy, fluttering, diaphanous veil. Off she flew into the woods with her prize trapped in her slender bill.
Bird Lore: In a marvel of instinct, the female Baltimore Oriole weaves a hanging pouch to provide a secure cradle for her eggs. A key to success is choosing the right materials, and she scours the surroundings for long, strong, flexible plant fibers to create a durable structure. If artificial fibers meet her standards, they’re incorporated into the nest as well. The male will stop by to watch, but rarely helps. Construction usually takes at least a week, but some females have been known to complete the task in less than five days.
Judge’s Take (Purbita Saha): We usually see the grace and inventiveness that goes into a Baltimore Oriole’s nest manifest in the final product. But in this photograph, we get to witness the female oriole literally wrapped up in the process. It conveys urgency and a healthy dose of whimsy, which is one my favorite ways to think about birds, female or not.
Amateur Award Winner: Karen Blackwood
Species: Chinstrap Penguin
Location: Cierva Cove, Antarctica
Camera: Canon EOS R5 with a RF 70–200mm f/2.8 L IS USM @200mm lens; 1/4000 second at f/8; ISO 1000
Story Behind the Shot: On a stormy, snowy day, I was in a Zodiac touring an iceberg-filled cove. The rough water tossed the little rubber boat around. As I watched Gentoo Penguins leap onto the rocky shore and march to their nesting colony, I spotted a Chinstrap Penguin standing alone on a blue iceberg capped with fresh snow. It peered over the edge, and I knew it was going to jump. I adjusted my settings, keeping in mind the pitching boat, moving iceberg, and penguin that would soon be in midair. The bird jumped directly in front of me, diving straight into the water. I caught it just before it slipped beneath the waves and got both eyes and its perfect shape. I had captured a “perfect 10” of a dive. Wow!
Bird Lore: Contrary to their public image as birds of Antarctica, most of the 18 penguin species live in the south temperate zone. The Chinstrap Penguin is among the few true denizens of the zone of pack ice. Like many penguins, Chinstraps feed primarily on the small shrimplike crustaceans called krill, often pursuing them more than 50 feet below the sea surface. The long tail of this species, noticeable in this photo, probably helps it maneuver when swimming underwater.
Judge’s Take (Melissa Hafting): This photographer brilliantly captured the stark contrast of the mostly black penguin against its blue, melting sea-ice landscape. The diving bird’s eyes are visible, and everything is sharp and in focus. Beyond technical merits, this photo evokes a lot of emotion in me. Chinstrap Penguins are having a difficult time adapting to a warming climate—just like the Indigenous peoples and northern communities who have contributed little to climate change but are experiencing the worst of its effects. It’s easy for people in far-away cities to ignore these problems. But these penguins are an indicator species that everyone must pay attention to. If the sea ice melts away, everyone is affected. The photo is a good reminder how we are all so connected.
Video Award Winner: Steven Chu
Species: Short-eared Owl
Location: Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, Wallkill, New York
Camera: Nikon Z9 with Nikon NIKKOR Z 800mm f/6.3 VR S lens; 1/320 second at f/8; ISO 900
Story Behind the Shot: I’ve spent the past four winters setting out every free moment to document Short-eared Owls. They survey the grasslands for voles close to sunset, but many times the birds don’t come out at all or are too far away. On this day, at the end of the trail, I heard an owl call. I saw another fly quickly to the first. The birds locked talons and cartwheeled downward, releasing each other just before hitting the ground. I’d never seen this before. It was my lucky day!
Bird Lore: Most owls are creatures of mystery, lurking in dense forest and calling at night. The Short-eared is a delightful exception. It forages by flying low over marshes, prairies, and other open habitats, often in daylight, making it easier to observe. Its range across five continents adds to its everyman’s owl aura. Local concentrations may develop in winter where prey are abundant. When several birds converge on a field, frequent but brief clashes may ensue.
Judge’s Take (Rina Miele): The videos I selected were very intentional. They demonstrated the videographer was actively engaged and took advantage of the moving-image medium. Action was key, especially the photographers’ ability to capture difficult or spontaneous events: Short-eared Owls fight and bicker and engage each other in combat, but this spiral is one of the best I’ve seen. Capturing this was certainly an amazing achievement.
Plants for Birds Award Winner: Linda Scher
Location: Sweetwater Wetlands, Tucson, Arizona
Camera: Nikon Z9 with a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens; 1/400 second at f/7.1; ISO 640
Story Behind the Shot: I birded the Sweetwater Wetlands while visiting Tucson and saw Verdins for the first time. At the far end of the site, I found a pair building a nest in a cane cholla. Given how tiny the birds are, I was surprised by the nest’s large size. Four weeks later, I came back with friends. Using long lenses to stay distant, we photographed the busy pair gathering insects and caterpillars for their chicks. I love this image because it captures the Verdin’s high energy, its desert habitat, and the protection that cacti offer.
Bird Lore: A tiny desert dweller of the Southwest and Mexico, the Verdin is unique in the Americas. Its closest relatives in Africa and Eurasia are best known for building elaborate nests, and the Verdin is equally impressive. Its nest is a large globular structure with an entrance low on one side. An outer layer of thorny twigs surrounds inner layers of much softer materials: leaves, grasses, plant down, fur, feathers, and spiderwebs. Verdins often build in spiny plants, which help to deter predators.
Judge’s Take (Marlene Pantin): In this photo we see the role that native plants such as cacti play in providing critical food and shelter for birds—even in the harshest environments. The photograph also does an exceptional job of capturing the contrast between the large cane cholla and tiny Verdin. I am struck by how the cactus seems to envelop the bird, providing a sense of care and protection for it. The wonderful mix of textures and vibrant and muted colors add gravity to the photo.
Youth Award Winner: Kieran Barlow
Location: Barnegat Light, New Jersey
Camera: Nikon D850 with a Tamron SP 150-600mm F/5–6.3 Di VC USD G2 @240mm lens; 1/3200 second at f/5.6; ISO 560
Story Behind the Shot: On a winter trip to New Jersey, my goal was to capture images of Harlequin Ducks. Instead, I became enraptured by a flock of sandpipers feeding on the rocks. They would all fly out of the way when a wave crashed onto shore, so I hunkered down between boulders and waited. It was a challenge not to fall between the wet, seaweed-covered rocks into the water. After more than an hour of unsuccessful attempts, I picked out a nearby sandpiper and hoped it would take flight. As a wave crashed, the entire flock took to the air. I eagerly reviewed my photos: I had finally captured a Dunlin as it narrowly avoided being dragged into the sea.
Bird Lore: The 24 sandpipers in the genus Calidris are all migratory, and many evade winter by flying to the southernmost reaches of the southern continents. But Dunlins buck the trend, migrating only short to medium distances from their northern high-latitude breeding areas. In North America, flocks of this hardy sandpiper winter along coastlines north to Canada and southern Alaska, often on rocky shorelines pounded by the surf.
Judge’s Take (Melissa Hafting): This shot is a spectacular feast for the eyes, and it also tells a story. The photographer caught the bird as it jumped up and both the water and Dunlin are perfectly frozen in motion. You can feel the crashing waves and the mossy wet rock. I can almost hear the bird’s wings flapping, and the chattering it would have made when it was disturbed from roosting or feeding. Hopefully this image makes people want to protect intertidal habitats on wintering and migration grounds where these shorebirds rest and feed.
Fisher Prize: Sunil Gopalan
Species: Brown Pelican
Location: Galápagos National Park, Ecuador
Camera: Canon EOS R3 with a Canon EF 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6L IS II USM @100mm lens; 1/200 second at f/4.5; ISO 25,600
Story Behind the Shot: On a cruise in the Galápagos with my family, my kids called for me. The lights of the docked boat had attracted many fish. This, in turn, drew several Galápagos sharks and a Brown Pelican. An interaction of species like that is a photo opportunity. The pelican would jump out of the water when the shark got close, so I hoped to time my shots to get both in the frame. After a couple of hours, I was able to photograph a few interactions. In this image, the shark swims under the bird, creating a ghostly silhouette. I didn’t know if this sort of photograph was common, but for me, it was special.
Bird Lore: Small fish near the sea surface must be aware of predators from above and below. In offshore waters from the United States to the Galápagos, Brown Pelicans are among the main aerial threats, plunging into the waves headfirst to scoop up fish in an expandable bill pouch. Adult pelicans have little to fear from other creatures while in the air, but on water they, too, must stay alert for the odd shark attack.
Judge’s Take (Morgan Heim): This image is like a present that you get to open over and over again. The light and curves are so elegant as to be painterly, but as you look longer you realize the layers of story. The Brown Pelican appears to sense something below it, and its bowed head prompts you to linger longer. You realize its reflection in the water is not only a reflection. The shark curving just beneath the pelican’s body completes a perfect arc, melding into each other. Did the shark attack or simply swim by? Our minds run wild. The moment could have easily been missed, and it is a prime example of a photographer composing a dramatic juxtaposition that pays homage to two species’ lives. It teaches us to notice subtleties.
Youth Honorable Mention: James Fatemi
Species: Green-winged Teal
Location: Huntley Meadows Park, Alexandria, Virginia
Camera: Nikon Z9 with a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 600mm f/4E FL ED VR lens and a Nikon Mount Adapter FTZ II; 1/320 second at f/4; ISO 400
Story Behind the Shot: I enjoy taking pictures of wildlife in snow, but this winter was one of the least snowy on record. In late February, just as I was beginning to think the season would end with no snowfall, the forecast predicted flurries the next morning. I went to the marsh soon after sunrise and waited. These two Green-winged Teals were some of the only subjects in the marsh that day. After a few hours, they began their courtship ritual and mating just as large flakes started to fall. I hung my lens over the boardwalk to get a water-level view. The snow and smooth water created a serene image that I was happy to capture.
Bird Lore: Like many ducks, Green-winged Teals mostly pair up on their wintering grounds, with courtship behavior beginning by late fall. At first, courting is often a group activity, with up to two dozen males vying for the attention of one or more females. Courting males perform a variety of displays, with much bowing, headshaking, bill-pointing, short flights, and loud whistled calls. Ultimately the female chooses from among her suitors, and the mated pair migrate together to the breeding grounds. The male leaves after the female begins incubating eggs.
Judge’s Take (Sabine Meyer): I really like that this young photographer set out intentionally to capture this image in adverse weather, parlaying snowflakes and the gray overcast light into assets that created the cool mood of this mating scene. It’s also a tender moment and unusual in that the female is nearly submerged except for her head. The colors on the male pop beautifully against the overall muted color palette.
Professional Honorable Mention: Liron Gertsman
Species: Northern Hawk Owl
Location: Thompson-Nicola, British Columbia, Canada
Camera: Canon EOS R5 with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5–5.6L IS II USM @400mm lens and Canon Mount Adapter EF–EOS R; 1/500 second at f/5.6; ISO 500
Story Behind the Shot: Despite my spending time in Northern Hawk Owl habitat over the years, my encounters with this elusive and stunning species were few and far between. My explorations had mostly been in summer, when the owls are locally scarce and harder to find. Eager to change my luck, I spent several days hiking and searching this winter. Even with my large snowshoes, I regularly sank to my knees in the deep, powdery snow. I was finally rewarded with several unforgettable encounters with a Northern Hawk Owl pair as they hunted and courted. I captured this image as one perched at the tip of a frosty tree.
Bird Lore: A unique owl with no close relatives, the Northern Hawk Owl ranges across boreal forest zones of Eurasia and North America, mostly staying far from human settlements. Adapted to the long light of northern summers, this owl is active by day year-round. Unlike owls that rely on sharp hearing to hunt by night, it watches for its prey, which consists mostly of voles in summer and some birds in winter. When it spots a target, the owl swoops in with fast, powerful wingbeats, suggesting the behavior of the Accipiter hawks, hence its name.
Judge’s Take (Sabine Meyer): Less is more for this photo of a Northern Hawk Owl: It exudes a peaceful, pared-down elegance built on a very limited color palette, and its shapes and lines easily draw the eye to the crowning jewel at the tip of the frosty tree. I like that the dramatic composition achieves a perfect visual balance, even though the tree limbs are not fanning out in total symmetry. And there is something ghostly yet magical about the bird that appears to stare us down.
Plants for Birds Honorable Mention: Vicki Santello
Species: Tree Swallow
Location: Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, Louisiana
Camera: Canon EOS-1D X Mark III with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS @140mm lens and a Canon Extender EF 1.4x III; 1/800 second at f/8; ISO 1250
Story Behind the Shot: I was enjoying the quiet of a secluded sunrise in my kayak when I heard a loud hum. I couldn’t imagine what could make such a persistent sound. My ears guided me to the source: thousands of Tree Swallows hunting insects on the wing and water surface. Their collective wing-beating generated the noise. As I got closer, I had a second wondrous realization: The swallows that were not actively hunting rested on bare, old-growth bald cypress trees; the birds crowded together so tightly that the branches looked as if they had leaves. I let my kayak drift and began to shoot, experimenting with focal lengths and angles until the flock burst up as one and departed.
Bird Lore: Aerial insectivores like swallows and swifts forage in flight, nabbing insects in midair as they sweep gracefully over open fields or water. Unlike swifts, which may stay on the wing continuously, swallows rest on convenient perches when they can. These stately bald cypress, iconic trees of southeastern swamps, give the Tree Swallows access to a prime feeding area: a wide-open bayou, where insect swarms often gather low over the water’s surface.
Judge’s Take (Marlene Pantin): On first glance, it appears that the limbs of the Bald Cypress, a native tree, are dotted with leaves. Only on closer inspection is it obvious that birds cover the branches, adding so much fullness to the trees. With the backdrop of the sky, water, and horizon, and the beautiful, serene colors that blend seamlessly into each layer, this photo appears to be a painting rather than a photograph. It is very calming, and as such, draws you in.
Amateur Honorable Mention: Nathan Arnold
Species: Reddish Egret
Location: San Carlos Bay–Bunche Beach Preserve, Fort Myers, Florida
Camera: Sony Alpha 1 with a Sony FE 400mm f/2.8 GM OSS lens; 1/2000 second at f/2.8; ISO 640
Story Behind the Shot: At sunrise, when the tide was low, I kayaked to a local spot where Reddish Egrets fish. Heavy fog obscured the sun, creating a yellow-orange light. The scene felt surreal. It’s amazing to capture the craziness of this bird’s feeding behavior—how they stab their bills into the water, jump, and flap. I took this photo as the light over my shoulder illuminated water droplets and a small fish, right as the egret flipped its breakfast into its bill.
Bird Lore: The Reddish Egret is famous for its wildly varied feeding repertoire. Individuals may stand in one spot, walk slowly, or dash about, lurching side to side, stirring the water with their feet, abruptly spreading and closing their wings. All the action serves to startle fish into moving. Nabbing its prey, the egret expertly tosses it up to reposition it before swallowing it whole.
Judge’s Take (Sabine Meyer): A decisive moment perfectly captured! There are so many elements coming together in this photo: the Reddish Egret glowing in the misty light of the rising sun; the fish suspended vertically in the air just before it is swallowed; the water’s motion frozen in the beak’s opening and the droplets shimmering against the golden backdrop. To top it all, the reddish light beautifully matches the bird’s neck and belly.
Video Honorable Mention: Steven Chu
Location: Millville, New Jersey
Camera: Nikon Z9 with a Nikon NIKKOR 800mm F/5.6E FL ED VR lens; 1/320 second at f/5.6; ISO 64
Story Behind the Shot: At this dam, I can capture Ospreys pulling fish from the water at eye level. But I have to walk down large, unstable rocks; I remember this day vividly because I nearly tumbled down. Luckily, I landed safely, and I set up on the water’s edge. The cloudy day and low tide allowed me to shoot for six hours without worrying about shadows. Ospreys like to fly into the wind, and with the wind at my back, the conditions were ideal. I finally got a video of an Osprey grabbing a large fish and flying directly toward me, its eyes trained on my lens. Now when I return, I use my tripod as a walking stick to help me navigate the rocks.
Bird Lore: Osprey hunting behavior is a feat of skill and strength: soaring or hovering over the water, plunging feet first to grasp a fish from just below the surface, then lifting it and flying away. They are known to capture and carry fish that are more than half their own weight. Tales of “fish hawks” being dragged underwater and drowned after snagging large prey are almost certainly false; the Osprey will simply let go of a too-heavy load.
Judge’s Take (Mick Thompson): There are so many things to love about this video. The videographer was not only able to get in close on the bird but also found a way to shoot at eye level. The Osprey shows off its powerful wings as it rises out of the water with such a heavy load. I was impressed with the videographer’s ability to keep the Osprey in focus, which is often difficult when birds are flying towards you. I love the detail we can see in the bird and the fish as we marvel at the Osprey’s ability to hang on. The small waterfall in the background enhances the composition.
These winning images originally ran in the Summer 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.