Our Favorite Female Bird Shots From the 2022 Audubon Photography Awards

Females steal the spotlight in these 12 arresting images.
Sporting a spiky crest of caramel feathers, a brown female Hooded Merganser swims vigorously while proudly displaying a large, red crayfish she just plucked from the water below. Behind her, a large plume of water raises up behind her as she prepares to take off and escape the males, not pictured, that are after her meal.
Hooded Merganser. Photo: John LeeWong/Audubon Photography Awards

Our 2022 Audubon Photography Awards marked the second year of our new Female Bird Prize. Created to call attention to some of the most overlooked birds in the world, the female bird category challenges photographers to focus their cameras and attention on the sex that is too often ignored. This neglect by bird lovers and even scientists isn’t just a problem of philosophy or equality. Recent research has shown that lack of focus on the specific needs of female birds has profound consequences for species conservation. 

When Audubon magazine launched the Female Bird Prize, we weren’t sure what the response was going to be. We were pleasantly surprised when we received hundreds of amazing submissions the first year. But that did not prepare us for the avalanche of incredible female bird photography that we would receive in 2022. More than a thousand photos featuring a wide array of species, from jaunty Hooded Mergansers to regal Northern Shovelers, left our special panel of judges beaming. 

If after enjoying the images below you find yourself inspired to pick up a camera and pursue female avian subjects on your own, our photography section has everything you need to get started, including tips and how-to’s and Audubon’s ethical guidelines for wildlife photography. Then get out there and start recording your favorite species. 

Hooded Merganser by John Lee Wong (above) 

Location: Arcadia, CA
Behind the Shot: I took this shot on my fourth trip of the season photographing Hooded Mergansers with crayfish. I had lots of good shots already, but this time I wanted to capture a spectacular high-action moment, something unique and seldom seen. After a couple hours, a female merganser emerged from the water with a large crayfish and two males took off toward her to steal it. As she started leaning forward and lifting her wings, I hit the shutter button to capture her kicking up a gigantic rooster tail of water while taking off with her catch. To me, having a female merganser as the star instead of one of the more flamboyant males made this shot that much more special.

Northern Flicker by Marti Phillips

Location: Tiburon, CA
Behind the Shot: During COVID-19 pandemic closures, I made a project of photographing every species that landed in the treetops visible from my backyard deck. I have photographs of more than 30 different species on a single branch, which shows how important just one tree can be to a wide variety of birds. The top of the tree featured in this shot is a favorite perch. I love how the patterns on the flicker echo the patterns on the tree and pinecones. I hope that even though this tree has died due to the drought, the owners of the property don’t cut it down—it is so important to the wildlife in the neighborhood.

Snail Kite by John Ruggeri

Location: Lake Tohopekelagia, Osceola County, FL
Behind the Shot: I have been watching this female Snail Kite since 2018. She returns to the south end of Lake Tohopekelagia every November, and according to University of Florida biologists, she hatched on the lake back in 2016. I've nicknamed her Turtle Girl because, contrary to her common name, she seems to be drawn more to turtles than snails, at least in this location. She successfully hunts anywhere from five to eight turtles per day. On the day I got this shot after returning from a tour, I offloaded my passengers, pushed off the dock, and let the boat drift to the other side of the basin. The boat came to rest in the lily pads, and I checked the settings and started photographing her. To photograph Turtle Girl, I like to wait until the afternoon when the light is more desirable. 

Bushtit by Ken Meyer

Location: Portland, OR
Behind the Shot: Our yard is a Certified Backyard Habitat through our local chapter of Audubon, and as my wife and I have learned more about the program, we volunteer to evaluate and certify other yards. One important aspect of evaluating yards is paying attention to the layers. Birds use different layers to approach food sources and to have an escape route from predators, as well as for finding suitable nest sites. A flock of Bushtits regularly visit our backyard in the winter and spring, and like this one, they make use of the layers of vegetation that we have, moving from tree to shrub in search of insects. If you are able to provide the right habitat for birds, you don’t have to travel to enjoy them. 

Northern Shoveler by Gloria Hong

Location: Central Park, NY 
Behind the Shot: I spent an hour at Central Park's reservoir photographing overwintering ducks before walking my way north to an area called "the pool" to sit and rest. A female Northern Shoveler decided she was going to preen on a rock that was near where I was sitting, and the light was wonderful. I love photographing ducks at the pool because it allows me to get low. Autumn leaves were still on trees, and as the sun filtered through them, it cast a glorious reddish-orange tint to the water that framed her so beautifully.

Boat-tailed Grackle by Nancy Malecki

Location: Wakodahatchee Wetlands, Delray Beach, FL
Behind the Shot: I visited the Wakodahatchee Wetlands on a partly cloudy day, and by my third loop around the boardwalk, it was becoming more challenging to keep up with the fast-moving clouds and rapidly changing light conditions. Ahead, I saw a large group of visitors, so I decided to slow down and watch some Boat-tailed Grackles exhibiting courting behavior. With the males clearly outnumbering the females, they were frantically trying to out-display one another to impress the ladies. After a few minutes, this female landed nearby. It seemed both of us were taking a time-out from the activity around us. I was happy to capture a few photos of her as she rested briefly before flying off again.

Northern Harrier by Jason Gilbody

Location: Salisbury Beach State Reservation, Salisbury, MA
Behind the Shot: This female Northern Harrier was quite the star at this location during the winter of 2021-2022. This seaside state park is quite large, but she had a pattern of doing loops around the marsh. To our shock and disbelief, she came out of nowhere and perched on this forked branch. I moved slightly and slowly to get the best angle, then stood as still as possible to not disturb her or spook her from her perch. She stayed perched for minutes, preening and calling to the other harriers in the area as I photographed away. This photo of her preening was one of my favorites from the interaction. I loved that she had isolated a single feather in her beak but is still looking quite intently across the marsh in case she sees her next meal.

Indigo Bunting by Jane Gamble

Location: McKee-Beshers Wildlife Management Area, Poolesville, MD
Behind the Shot: Every year, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources plants the McKee-Beshers sunflower fields in Poolesville, MD. By early July, the sunflowers are at their peak, providing a glorious backdrop for photographers who come to capture the fleeting beauty of the flowers and the creatures who value the rich habitat. I was waiting patiently, surrounded by sunflowers that towered over me but provided good cover, when I saw this female Indigo Bunting land with a juicy caterpillar in her beak. There was no posing for her—just a quick look in my direction before flying back to the trees with her catch. It was enough time for me to snap the shot and capture the moment. 

Long-tailed Duck by Vicki Jauron

Location: Island Beach State Park, NJ
Behind the Shot: The golden sunrise colors, the soft waves, a single little female Long-tailed Duck in profile as she crests the swell—this scene evokes a sense of serenity and oneness with nature for me. The bird is so small in the frame that she cannot be the subject, yet she adds a sense of wonder, a sense of vastness, and a deep sense of all being right with the world. For me there is no time better than sunrise to capture mood and emotion, and there's no place better to do it than on the beach. During these times, I am happy to cross paths with any bird, close or far, unique or common.    

Red-winged Blackbird by Kenneth Haas

Location: Upstate New York
Behind the Shot: I took this shot on a cold, overcast, and windy afternoon in early May. Around the pond on my property, the air was filled with the sound of a dozen Red-winged Blackbirds. When I noticed cattail seeds flying in the wind across the frame of my camera, I slowly and quietly moved my tripod around the tree obstructing my view to find this female pulling seeds from last year’s cattails and letting them fly. I took a series of photos and she never noticed me. She had trouble keeping her balance in the strong wind as evidenced by the extension of her right wing. Every spring the male Red-winged Blackbirds arrive first on my property with the females showing up a couple of weeks later. This female had just returned to the pond and was looking for the best of last year’s cattails to build her nest. These birds are always welcome and special visitors to my home.

American Kestrel by Robert Palmer

Location: Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area, Farmington, UT
Behind the Shot: I used to spend a lot of time photographing wildlife, especially birds at the waterfowl management area on cold winter mornings. This day was no exception: cloudy, 20 degrees, no wind. There are usually a few American Kestrels hanging around, and this morning there was one kestrel that was preening in a tree with frost on the branches about 20 feet away. She was very focused on cleaning her feathers and not paying attention to me. I was in my car along the road and took a number of photos of her preening. I think this photo illustrates the beauty that can be found in a bird performing a simple, every day task. 

Golden-crowned Kinglet by Sharon Olson

Location: Clackamas County, OR
Behind the Shot: While out walking one day in a wooded area, camera in hand, I heard a high-pitched chorus high up in the towering conifer trees. Upon taking a closer look, I saw a flurry of activity with a flock of Golden-crowned Kinglets swiftly moving among the lush green branches. My heart skipped a beat realizing what a delightful challenge it would be to capture these small, nimble birds so high up in the treetops. I am in constant admiration observing birds and, so often, the dedication of females who tirelessly devote themselves to choosing mates, building nests, and defending their young and territories—often successfully and on their own. Photographing birds and nature is awe-inspiring for me; it transports me into the moment, allowing me to be consumed by the marvel unfolding right in front of me.