When photographing people, there is a big difference between taking portraits and taking action shots. The same is true of bird photography. We love to see beautifully composed portraits of birds at rest, but it’s also exciting when an image reflects avian subjects in the act of leading their fascinating lives. To capture such views successfully, the most important element is a working knowledge of the behavior of the species—and then predicting what the bird will do next. Top photographers often begin by watching their subjects for as long as possible, learning their patterns of movement and seeing how often they repeat. Quick reflexes help, too, since many birds move with surprising speed. And, as always, it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of luck. Enjoy these examples from photographers who brought all these elements together in these memorable submissions to our 2022 Audubon Photography Awards.
Once you’re done, be sure to check out the winners of last year’s awards and our favorite Top 100 images!
Face Full of Feathers (above)
For Cactus Wrens, nest construction is a big deal. The nest itself is substantial: a large, globular structure of twigs and dry stems, with an entrance on the side, and lined with an abundance of feathers. Cactus Wrens make nests not only for raising young, but also for roosting in at night, so each individual may be involved in building multiple nests every year. Pairs can usually find materials for the outer structure very close to the nest site, but they may have to range much farther to find the soft lining, so it’s not unusual to see a Cactus Wren flying through the desert with its bill stuffed full of feathers.
The feathers of Great Egrets are pure white at all seasons, and the birds wear long, flowing plumes for much of the year. For these egrets, courtship colors are expressed in their faces: The bare skin between their eyes and bill turns bright lime-green at the height of breeding season. Courtship displays between members of a pair are usually performed at or near the nest. These may include odd stretching postures, bowing, exaggerated preening, fluffing out the feathers of the neck and crest, and many more. At close range, the birds may also engage in a gentle mock dueling with their bills, or crossing their necks, like the individuals in this portrait.
Owls are legendary for their ability to locate prey by sound alone. Their asymmetrical ears, with the ear openings positioned and sized differently on each side of the head, allow them to pinpoint the source of a sound in three dimensions with remarkable accuracy. Of course this ability is useful for owls hunting in the dark, but it’s also of great value for hunting small prey hidden under layers of snow. The Great Gray Owl hunts voles, mice, and other rodents in winter by listening for their movements and then plunging feet-first into the snow, grasping prey as much as a foot and a half below the surface.
It’s a Steal
Most birds, when they’re building nests, choose materials with care—but not always with good results. Orioles, for example, need long, strong plant fibers to weave their hanging nests. When they live near humans, they often seize on colorful strands of plastic or other artificial materials, and sometimes they get trapped in loops of these unyielding items. Bad judgment is contagious, though, and after the orioles have finished nesting and departed, other species may steal these materials to use in their own nests. Here, a Cedar Waxwing tugs at a string from an oriole nest. Because waxwings start breeding later in the summer than most songbirds, they often raid supplies from nests recently abandoned by other species.
Northern Harriers are among the most widespread hawks in winter across North America, and because they hunt mostly by flying low over open areas, birders often get to watch them in action. It’s not unusual to see aggressive encounters among harriers or between harriers and other species. When one of the raptors has captured prey and another is trying to steal it, these skirmishes may be intense, but otherwise they’re usually brief. Here, a harrier swoops at a Snowy Owl on a dune. It’s not likely to attack—the owl weighs about four times as much as the harrier—so this is mostly just a display of attitude between predators.
Regular bathing is an important part of the self-maintenance routine of many birds. Bathing in water is the usual approach, but water isn’t always easy to find—especially in the desert habitat of the Greater Roadrunner. However, roadrunners make the most of what’s available. They take dust baths frequently, flopping down in loose, dry dirt, then moving their feet and fluttering their wings to spray fine dust up over their bodies. When they preen the dust out of their feathers, it helps to remove grease, flakes of dry skin, and perhaps a few lice or other external parasites. Dust-bathing seems to meet their needs, and they seldom bathe in water even when it’s available
Signs of Affection
The nest, a large flat structure, is the focal point for romantic activities by Great Blue Herons. These big birds have a wide variety of courtship postures and displays, some of them surprisingly practical. Large sticks are the main nest materials, and the adults continue to add them throughout the breeding cycle, using them to reinforce the pair bond as well as the physical structure of the nest. Typically the male brings most of the sticks, and the female does most of the exacting work of placing them in just the right spot. The members of the pair make a ritual out of passing sticks to each other, just one more move to keep romance alive.
Bald Eagles are widely admired, but in many ways the Common Raven is a more remarkable bird. Classified as a songbird but near the size of a hawk, it’s thought to be one of the most intelligent avian species; it’s adapted to a wide variety of habitats all over the Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic to the tropics. Ravens are often scavengers, feeding on kills left by wolves, bears, or Golden Eagles. Their interactions with Bald Eagles—which are also scavengers—may involve competing for carrion. In this photo, the raven may be simply playing, taunting the larger raptor, while deftly staying out of reach.
Rock Pigeons are native to the Old World, but they have established thriving feral flocks in many North American urban centers. Peregrine Falcons originally placed their nests on cliffs in wilderness areas, but they have adapted to city life also. Tall buildings there provide cliff-like nest sites, and there’s a ready food source: flocks of Rock Pigeons. Peregrines are famed as among the fastest flying birds, both when plunging from the sky and in level pursuit. But the pigeons are also swift and agile, their flocks splitting and sweeping wide when chased, and they often evade the falcons. This deadly dance between predator and prey is sometimes watched by alert observers even in our largest cities.
Tying the Knot(s)
The weavers are well named. These songbirds of Africa and southern Asia are famed for their ability to weave green grasses together, tying intricate knots in the stems, to create sturdy nests. Some weavers form very large colonies but in this species, the Southern Masked-Weaver, a “colony” may consist of one male and several females with a handful of nests in an isolated tree. The male builds the outer shell of the nest—a hanging ball with the entrance near the bottom—and does a singing, wing-waving display there to attract a mate. If it works, the female (peering out of the entrance in this photo) will complete the nest by adding the inner lining.
Courtship feeding is a common behavior in several kinds of birds. As it usually plays out, early in the breeding season the male begins offering food to the female, often as part of a ritualized courtship display. This happens with birds as varied as hawks, terns, cardinals, and finches. For Pine Siskins, however, there’s a twist: They may engage in this behavior at any time of year, and it may involve two males or two females, not necessarily a male and female. They may simply touch bill tips, rather than passing food. For these highly social birds, the ritual may help to promote cohesion within the flock.