Audubon Photography Awards

The 2021 Audubon Photography Awards: Top 100

Scroll through these superb images that feature birds in all their varied glory, and find out the backstory behind each shot.

This year more than 2,000 photographers from across the United States and Canada submitted images to Audubon magazine's 12th annual Audubon Photography Awards, and our panel of expert judges whittled down the entries to eight stunning winners and five honorable mentions. With more than 9,000 photographs entered in the contest, there was an abundance of exceptional avian images from which we selected 100 additional shots to share.

Displayed in no particular order, these photos feature birdlife at its most vivid, vulnerable, formidable, and playful. There are intimate portraits that reveal exquisite details, action shots that capture powerful raptors on the hunt, and arresting images that celebrate a wide array of bird behavior. So settle in and prepare to be enchanted with the beauty and variety of birdlife and impressed by the resourcefulness of bird photographers.

And if you’re inspired to pick up a camera and pursue avian subjects of your own, our photography section has everything you need to get started, including tips and how-to'sAudubon's ethical guidelines for wildlife photography, and gear recommendations. Next year, it could be your shot that makes the cut. 

1. Black-necked Stilts by Jack Zhi

A fuzzy, mottled Black-necked Stilt chick stands beneath its more obvious parent, which has a white underbelly and black and brown back. The adult stands in profile, a clump of green grasses
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, Irvine, CA

  • Camera: Sony a9 II with a Sony 600mm f/4 GM OSS lens and 1.4x Sony FE 1.4x Teleconverter; 1/2000 second at f/5.6; ISO 400

  • Behind the Shot: I had set my gear on the mud at the water’s edge to get a low angle and was looking down at my flip-out LCD screen when this little Black-necked Stilt emerged from behind the reeds with its mother. I took a few shots as the chick struggled to stand up, catching this perfect moment when mama caught the little one with her foot.

2. Baltimore Oriole by Sharon Dobben

An orange-and-black Baltimore Oriole sings from its perch on an eastern white pine branch. The bird is small against a blue sky filled with white clouds, but its vibrant colors make it stand out against the sky and tree’s green needles.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Flossmoor, IL

  • Camera: Canon EOS 80D with a Canon EF 300mm f/4L IS USM lens; 1/1250 second at f/5; ISO 400

  • Behind the Shot: Last May spring migration was an especially welcome distraction during the COVID-19 shutdown. On this day, I spotted a warbler in the yard, grabbed my camera, and hustled outside, but a Baltimore Oriole singing its heart out distracted me. I spotted it three backyards away perched on a high branch of a tall eastern white pine. I got two quick shots before he flew off, and only this one was in focus. I was grateful to have captured the oriole’s orange and black against the greens and blues of the trees, shadows, and sky. Hearing the oriole singing that evening was just what I needed.

3. Red-headed Woodpecker by Vance Solseth

The frame is divided in two, and the left side provides an out-of-focus background. On the right is a barkless light tan snag riddled with insect holes. In the center of the tree is a large hole where a Red-headed Woodpecker peeks out. Its red head—the only visible part of its body—is cocked to the side.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Lake Murray, Lexington, SC

  • Camera: Sony a7III with a Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens; 1/1000 second at f/6.3; ISO 1600

  • Behind the Shot: Out on the lake near my home, snags on several small islands house nesting birds in the spring and early summer. I kayaked out early one morning, hid my boat under a tree, and set up my blind so I could see a cavity where Red-headed Woodpeckers were making a nest. I stayed as far away and as quiet as possible so as not to disturb their behavior. I love this frame because the bird looks so inquisitive as it scans its surroundings.

4. Green Heron by Ilai Porat

Olive-and-emerald-green feathers fold over each other in a close-up shot of the back of a Green Heron. Only a small section of its body is pictured. Yellow-edged feathers on its side provide depth to the image. Bubbles from the water in which the bird is standing appear as globes, with bright green plants focused in the foreground.
  • Category: Youth

  • Location: Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve, Fort Myers, FL

  • Camera: Nikon D7500 DSLR with a Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 ED VR lens; 1/320 second at f/5.6; ISO 400

  • Behind the Shot: As I walked through a Florida wetland, I noticed this Green Heron standing silently and completely still near the water. The bird was very close to the trail and had no fear of me, so I was able to zoom in on its feathers. It was the first time I had really seen the green feathers on its back and was finally able to understand how the bird got its name. These herons are also really small, so I felt extremely privileged to have been able to view one from so close.

5. American Woodcock by Alexander Eisengart

An American Woodcock, its outstretched wings high behind it, stands in brown fallen leaves that reflect its buff color. Its long bill points to the ground in profile, with a blurred stone background lined with dead orange leaves behind it.
  • Category: Youth

  • Location: Cleveland, OH

  • Camera: Sony Alpha a6400 with a Sony E 70-350mm f/4.5-6.3 G OSS lens; 1/640 second at f/6.3; ISO 2000

  • Behind the Shot: The American Woodcock is my favorite bird, and I made it my mission to photograph one. I looked at eBird and found people reporting the species at a cemetery in the middle of the city. I entered the concrete jungle to find a small oasis: a graveyard that teemed with life during migration season. Only a few minutes after entering this green space, I found the woodcock despite its insane camouflage. I hid behind a tree and snapped photos as it put on a show, flapping its wings as if to show off its beauty.

6. Allen's Hummingbird by Eric J. Smith

An Allen’s Hummingbird looks up, it’s beak like a spear pointing to the upper right-hand corner of the frame. The bird’s brown neck feathers look like striated scallops that lead up to the beak, on which a tiny fig wasp rests. The hummingbird appears to look at its hitchhiker.
  • Category: Professional

  • Location: Los Angeles, CA

  • Camera: Canon EOS 5DS R with a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II USM lens; 1/1250 second at f/8; ISO 200

  • Behind the Shot: As the COVID-19 pandemic raged last summer, so did wildfires in southern California. Stuck at home alone with an air conditioner on the fritz, I had breakfast on my deck every morning, where I saw a single Allen’s Hummingbird perched on the branch of my potted olive tree. The bird became a regular, and I started bringing my camera with the morning coffee. On this day I noticed something on the hummingbird’s beak. The bird flew away and returned a half a dozen times without shaking the object. When I reviewed the photos, I realized a fig wasp had hitched a ride. It was a moment of wonder and delight in a season of dark times.

7. Northern Mockingbird by Katrina Baker

A Northern Mockingbird perches on a small branch of a tree, its legs fully extended. The bird’s body faces the camera with its head turned to the side and one eye staring intently at the lens. The bird’s muted grays and browns helps it to blend in with the tree’s branches, while the surrounding green and yellow foliage provides contrasts.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Eighty Four, PA

  • Camera: Sony Alpha a9 II with a Sony FE 200-600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens; 1/1000 second at f/6.3; ISO 1250

  • Behind the Shot: Sitting quietly in my backyard watching and occasionally photographing birds in a nearby tree, I noticed this Northern Mockingbird acting on its natural territorial instinct. Whenever another bird landed on a nearby branch, it would swoop, hop, or scold until the intruder departed. When the mockingbird seemed to notice me across the yard, it hopped onto the arch of this branch, stood tall, and turned its commanding gaze in my direction. It didn’t seem to mind me capturing photos, but that intense stare made it clear the tree was off-limits.

8. Brown Booby by Lawrence Worcester

A Brown Booby flies toward the camera over a rocky beach with its wings extended, twisting to shake off water mid-air. Tiny water droplets fly in all directions, creating a halo of shining beads around the bird in flight. In the background, a steep green cliff rises above the sandy rocks and sea foam to meet a partly cloudy sky.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Pasture Bay, St. Vincent and the Grenadines

  • Camera: Sony Alpha a9 with a Sony 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 GM OSS lens; 1/1250 second at f/5; ISO 100

  • Behind the Shot: Brown Boobies feasting on schooling fish barely had time to shake off water when surfacing before going back at it. This was the only time I witnessed one of the birds shudder its full body, and while flying directly at me. I was pretty sure I had gotten the split-second action that I worked so hard to capture. The word “booby” derives from the Spanish word bobo, meaning foolish and sometimes clumsy. This clearly refers to their walk and not their flight!

9. Harlequin Ducks by Matthew Reitinger

Three Harlequin Duck drakes face outward in opposite directions from a central point at the center of the image. Only their black-and-white heads and necks are visible as a splash is suspended in the air around them.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Barnegat Light State Park, NJ

  • Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 1.4x III; 1/800 second at f/8.0; ISO 200

  • Behind the Shot: One cold January morning, I walked along the jetty looking for ducks when I spotted a few Harlequin Ducks swimming near the rocks. I struggled to find a suitable perch that wasn’t too slippery so I could get as low to the water as possible. Once I found one, I settled in and waited for the ducks to approach. When they did, one of them moved suddenly, causing them to splash, a moment I captured in this image.

10. Sandhill Crane by Xianwei Zeng

A Sandhill Crane looks out over a field of yellow and white wildflowers in the rain, its yellow eye matching the blooms. The bird’s long neck extends beyond the plants, its red-capped head is turned to the left.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Kawartha Lakes, Ontario, Canada

  • Camera: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens and Canon Extender EF 2X III; 1/160 second at f/11; ISO 800

  • Behind the Shot: Tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes stopover in southern Ontario in the fall before migrating to the southern United States and Mexico. They roost in local marshes, fly to harvested corn and grass fields in the early morning to feed, and then return to roost in the afternoon. One morning during a heavy downpour, several Sandhill Cranes fed in a field filled with wildflowers. Whenever possible, I try to get eye-level shots when photographing birds, so I got out of my car, set up my tripod to get a lower angle, and quickly snapped this beautiful portrait.

11. Great Egrets by Xianwei Zeng

Great Egret parents stand in a nest made of sticks, wispy feathers coming off their backs and their necks crisscrossing as they bend low to feed three fuzzy chicks. Two of the chicks raise their yellow bills up to receive a regurgitated meal from a parent.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Xiangshan Forest Park, Nanchang, Jiangxi Province, China

  • Camera: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens and a Canon Extender EF 1.4X III; 1/250 second at f/8; ISO 400

  • Behind the Shot: Hundreds of Great Egrets return to eastern China’s Xiangshan Forest Park in early spring to breed, building their nests high in fir trees. The rivers and lakes nearby provide abundant fish to feed the birds and their chicks. Two years ago, I spent three weeks there observing and photographing the Great Egrets. Females lay one to six eggs, and both mates take turns incubating them, and, once they hatch, feeding the newborns. In order to get low-angle shots, I stood on a farmer’s house. I usually saw only one parent feeding the chicks at a time, but on this rainy day both adults fed the babies simultaneously. I quickly snapped a few shots of the family in one frame.

12. White Ibis by Kelley Luikey

A White Ibis, brilliant white with just a touch of black on the wingtips, stands on a maple tree branch, its bright red legs and bill matching the red leaves. Thousands of tiny flying insects backlit by the late afternoon sun fill the frame like snow.
  • Category: Professional

  • Location: Audubon Swamp Garden, Charleston, SC

  • Camera: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with a Canon 600mm f/4L IS III USM lens; 1/1000 at f/4; ISO 400

  • Behind the Shot: As a bird photographer in the South, I deal with biting, swarming, and stinging bugs year-round. On this early March afternoon, though, the bugs became part of the scene. I arrived at one of my favorite rookeries, set up my camera, and took a peek in the viewfinder to find thousands of bugs backlit and framed by the glowing red samaras of a maple tree. Within a few minutes, a White Ibis in bright breeding colors landed on a branch. I framed it with the tree in the foreground and the fairy-like bugs floating all around.

13. Trumpeter Swans by Lisa Sproat

A group of five snowy white Trumpeter Swans stand in a circle in a lush green field. Necks erect, beaks agape, and wings open, they face each other as if around a dinner table. Several haven't even finished their last mouthful of grass.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Skagit County, WA

  • Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM and a Canon Extender EF 1.4x III; 1/1600 second at f/5.6; ISO 1000

  • Behind the Shot: In the fall thousands of Trumpeter Swans fly south from their summer breeding grounds to make Skagit Valley's agricultural fields their winter home. The swans eat voraciously, picking through fields that stain their white feathers muddy brown. This group was feeding quietly when the pair on the left made a grab for their neighbors' patch. Mouths full, they beat their wings and honked in unison. The resident group stood its ground and displayed right back, looking like family arguing over a holiday dinner. With one vicious bite, the residents prevailed, and the field grew quiet again.

14. Lappet-faced Vulture by Staci Winston

A Lappet-faced Vulture holds up one wing in front of its pink head, one eye looking at the camera through a slit in the long wing feathers extending down.
  • Category: Amateur

  • Location: Kansas City Zoo, Kansas City, MO

  • Camera: Nikon D850 with a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 DG OS HSM Contemporary lens; 1/8000 second at f/5.6; ISO 2000

  • Behind the Shot: My initial interest in this fascinating bird was its intense presence, large size, hooked sharp beak, and bright-pink-and-purple hues on its face. I spent an hour photographing this vulture, and my husband and I were mostly alone at its exhibit. Near the end of the shoot, the vulture jumped to the ground and spread its wings along its side. It peeked through a gap in the feathers and locked a single intense eye on my camera. I hope people viewing this image will be intrigued to learn more about this bird and its importance as a scavenger in nature.