Female birds continue to delight and inspire us. From the subtle beauty of a Spruce Grouse hen to the bold russet patches on a Red-necked Phalarope, the female birds featured in this gallery captured the eyes and imaginations of photographers from across North America who entered the female bird category of the 2023 Audubon Photography Awards.
Launched in 2021 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. Although these shots didn't take any of the top prizes—you can see all of the winners here—we couldn't help but share these equally inspiring images. You can also find more amazing photography from this year's competition in our annual Top 100 review.
If after perusing the below gallery you find yourself inspired to pick up a camera and photograph avians 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 documenting your favorite winged subjects—male and female.
Northern Cardinal by Nicole Land (above)
Location: Cotulla, Texas
Behind the Shot: I was taking a photography workshop and exploring different camera bodies and lenses when I took this photograph. While using the Canon R5 (600mm lens) in shutter mode, we focused on the common birds in front of us—which happened to be a beautiful female Northern Cardinal bathing at the bird blind. Bath time is a great opportunity to practice photography skills like the importance of shutter speeds versus aperture settings. This cardinal saw me shooting and didn’t seem to care. The bath was way more important, so I was able to get many shots of various bathing poses.
Female ID tip: Female Northern Cardinals are readily identifiable with their gorgeous beige and subtle red plumage.
Belted Kingfisher by Jerry amEnde
Location: Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware
Behind the Shot: Belted Kingfishers are one of the most skittish birds to photograph. As soon as you get out of the car, they are almost sure to fly away. Therefore, the technique I’ve developed to photograph them is to find a favorite perch that the birds regularly return to, park a respectful distance away, and wait while using the car as a blind. I found one such perch at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge and shot several images of this female. Then, suddenly, she flew off the perch, and I was able to catch a photo of her in lovely morning light.
Female ID Tip: In Belted Kingfishers, the reddish patches on the chest and sides are only present in females.
Costa's Hummingbird by Melissa Harnish
Location: Oro Valley, Arizona
Behind the Shot: Photographing hummingbirds has always been an obsession of mine. There is something about the detail of their tiny feathers and straw-like tongues that fascinates me. On this particular morning, I had gone outside my home, coffee in hand, when I noticed this female Costa’s Hummingbird flitting from flower to flower. There was something about her simple green iridescent feathers against the bright orange flowers of the Mexican Bird of Paradise that compelled me to grab my camera. Little did I know that capturing this image would occupy my time for several hours; every time I raised my camera to click the shutter, she would dart away, leaving me to patiently wait for her return. After several hours, I finally got the shot.
Female ID tip: Female Costa’s Hummingbirds are overall green and gray, and lack the male's bright magenta-purple gorget and head feathers.
Pine Grosbeak by Yan Zhang
Location: Pickering, Ontario, Canada
Behind the Shot: Pine Grosbeaks are a magnificent winter bird, but they are fairly uncommon in Southern Ontario, as they breed in Northern Canada and the western high mountain areas across North America. This image was taken during an “irruption year,” when Pine Grosbeaks fly south in search of food. Photographing this female was really challenging because the birds were shy and so busy eating the berries on the trees. Fortunately, after flying away, they came back within an hour, and I captured this image using a 600mm lens to keep my distance.
Female ID Tip: Female Pine Grosbeak can be identified by their gray and yellow feathers; males are pinkish red.
Gambel's Quail by Jen Shepherd
Location: Scottsdale, Arizona
Behind the Shot: In January, my two daughters and I spent a week in gorgeous Scottsdale for our winter vacation. Back in the 1990s l lived in the desert and loved every moment. As a lifelong photographer, I hoped to take some wildlife images on this trip and packed my Sony Alpha 7 IV with a 200-600mm lens. Before sunrise, I decided to hike up a small ridge to see what animals might be waking up. I spotted a group of birds skittering about but couldn’t identify them because it was still too dark. Soon, though, it was bright enough for me to see that they were Gambel’s Quail. This female paused near some rose petals, so I crouched down as low as I could and began photographing. I waited patiently until she turned her head slightly and then snapped the shutter. One second later the group ambled away.
Female ID Tip: The lighter brown feathers and short plume indicate a female Gambel’s Quail; males have black facial feathers and a much more prominent, curled plume.
Wood Duck by Tammy Kokjohn
Location: Santee, California
Behind the Shot: Every spring I return to one of my favorite local lakes to see the newly hatched Wood Duck ducklings. One April morning I quickly spotted a Wood Duck hen with ducklings in the distance. I found a soft patch of grass some distance away to sit; maintaining a respectful distance is crucial in allowing adults and their ducklings to not feel threatened and for me to witness their true behavior. When I first spotted this family, they were foraging along the shoreline, nibbling the freshly sprouted grasses. Soon the hen herded her babies together and guided them up the slope to lay in the patch of grass for nap time. As they began to relax, one little duckling curled up close to the mother, and a second hopped on her back, sharing what looked to me like an expression of love. These adorable baby ducklings melted my heart.
ID Tip: Female Wood Ducks look like a much more understated version of the male. They have the same backswept crest and stately shape, but where the males are boldly plumed the females sport delicate beige and iridescent blue-purple. Females also sport a strong white eye ring.
American Kestrel by Robert Kaplan
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Behind the Shot: Kestrels have always been one of my favorite birds to photograph—small, colorful, and very photogenic. For the last several years there have been one or two locations around New York where kestrels reliably feed on voles and insects. One of those places is at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The challenge in capturing this shot was making an educated guess to which of the available perches the kestrel was going to land on. I positioned myself with the sun at my back and tracked the flight of the bird as it approached a nearby perch. When he flew off it and went to the ground in search of food, I was prepared, capturing the bird's return flight and the bug in its beak. I was gratified to see later that I had also captured, in my experience, a unique wing position. In documenting this behavior, I hope the public will see the beauty and ferociousness in North America's littlest falcon.
Female ID Tip: Female American Kestrels have a number of plumage differences from males, but the most visible one in this photo is the dark barring along each tail feather. Male American Kestrel tail feathers are entirely red with a black tip.
Bushtit by Ethan Cleveland
Location: Denver, Colorado
Behind the Shot: Early one morning I stepped out on my back deck to watch the small flock of Bushtits I saw patrolling my bird feeder. I pulled out my Nikon D3200 and a 300mm F4 lens that my grandpa had lended me and started taking some experimental shots of the birds. I was enjoying identifying the different eyes of the males and the females when I noticed one particular yellow-eyed female edging confidently along a twig toward where I was crouching, intent on the bird feeder. I raised my camera, carefully placed my focus point on the bird's eye, adjusted my shutter speed to 1/1000 of a second, and was lucky enough to achieve this sharp image!
Female ID Tip: Female Bushtits are easy to identify once you know what to look for: Unlike males and juveniles, which have dark brown irises, female Bushtits have light yellowish-olive eyes.
Black-throated Blue Warbler by ML Strahlendorff
Location: Metuchen, New Jersey
Behind the Shot: About 10 years ago I started turning what had been a conventional suburban yard into a chemical-free habitat garden filled with native plants and birdbaths. One of my great rewards has been the visits by migratory birds who stop to glean insects, eat seeds and berries, drink, and bathe. One of the most popular spots in the garden is this bubbler fountain constructed from rocks salvaged from a local excavation job. The large rock that serves as the platform has a natural, shallow depression just deep enough for small birds to safely splash. I had been watching the Black-and-white Warbler in the front when I saw the Black-throated Blue female peering out from behind the top rock, intently eying the Black-and-white and the spot it was enjoying.
Female ID Tip: Female Black-throated Blue Warblers look quite different from their male counterparts, but both sexes share one field mark that lets you know what species you’re looking at: a small white patch on each wing. No other North American warbler has this handy plumage detail.
Yellow Warbler by Heather Mall
Location: Richard Bong State Recreation Area, Wisconsin
Behind the Shot: We visited Richard Bong State Recreation Area in hopes of photographing Yellow-headed Blackbirds. While driving through, there were several birds we were hearing, but few we were seeing. It looked like it was going to start raining, so we parked our car at one of the stops and listened to the beautiful bird calls. I was looking out the car window with my camera when I noticed movement in the bushes in front of me. A female Yellow Warbler popped up and began foraging through the boughs. I was in awe of her beautiful plumage against the greenery and started taking photos. Looking back at my shots, I saw this one. It's one of my favorite images that I’ve ever taken, and for me, it's a reminder that something small can impact your life in a big, beautiful way.
Female ID Tip: Female Yellow Warblers are bright pure yellow and lack the reddish chest streaks frequently seen on male Yellow Warblers.
Eastern Bluebird by Yan Zhang
Location: Pickering, Ontario, Canada
Behind the Shot: After a day of freezing rain and a sudden drop in temperature, the trees and plants were completely covered in ice. Everything was frozen! For me, photography is about more than getting beautiful images; I prefer to learn about bird behavior and document it through my lens. So I went to see how the birds survived such a severe change in weather. Fortunately, I found this female Eastern Bluebird perched on the branch of a fruit tree.
Female ID Tip: Eastern Bluebird females like this one are generally lighter in color than their similarly marked male counterparts.
Red-necked Phalarope by Mike Diersing
Location: Nome, Alaska
Behind the Shot: Sitting at the edge of a pond in chest waders, I was looking to photograph grebes. Toward the center of the pond, just beyond some grasses, I saw a cluster of Red-necked Phalaropes foraging in their distinct zig-zag pattern. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a lone female phalarope in stunning full breeding plumage making a beeline toward the group. Thinking I was probably too late, I managed to acquire focus and get a sharp shot of her banking in a ventral pose, calling to announce, "Hey folks, I'm back!" I was so thrilled to get a sharp flight shot that I overlooked the five or so gallons of ice-cold Alaskan pond water that came over the top of my waders!
Female ID Tip: Like the Belted Kingfisher, phalaropes are the rare North American species where the females are more colorful than the males. In this case, the bright red neck and dark facial feathers indicate that this bird is female.
Spruce Grouse by Mark Staples
Location: Superior National Forest, Minnesota
Behind the Shot: While on a July hike in Superior National Forest, I noticed several young Spruce Grouse chicks had suddenly appeared among the undergrowth, calmly foraging along the hiking trail. They seemed totally unaffected by my accidental intrusion and continued to wander in all directions in search of food. As I reached for my camera, the mom hopped onto a nearby log to get a closer look at me. Before she returned to her brood, I was able to make an intimate portrait of the hen and her intricate feather pattern against a vibrant green backdrop. As both a birder and a conservationist, it was an incredible experience to watch this resident of the coniferous forest thrive in a protected habitat.
Female ID Tip: Female Spruce Grouse are overall speckled brown, while males’ heads and necks are mostly black.
Laysan Albatross by Hob Osterlund
Location: Kīlauea, Kaua’i, Hawaii
Behind the Shot: Laysan Albatross, like all other albatross species, are known for affectionate behaviors with their mates and chicks. Unmated pairs can also be very demonstrative with each other, and so can mated pairs who happen to be taking the year off from nesting. These two females, a known mated pair that skipped the breeding season, met up at the edge of a field in a colony where they typically nest, away from the other birds, for a session of preening, snuggling, and napping. These displays are common among mōlī, as they are known in the Hawaiian language. Since it was a late winter afternoon, the sun’s long rays put a spotlight on their bodies but kept the woods and the ravine behind them dark. I sat on the ground about 50 feet away and took a series of shots. The birds appeared oblivious to me.
Female ID Tip: Laysan Albatross males and females have very similar plumage, but males can be up to 25 percent more massive than females. Female-female pairs can be identified by the presence of two eggs in a single nest.