This year, more than 8,000 photos were entered in our ninth annual contest. That's almost 2,500 more than last year, and entrants came from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and 10 Canadian provinces But no matter where they were taken, all of the images evoke the splendor, resilience, and ingenuity of birdlife.
We also had a first for the awards this year. Because our selection process is blind, judges realized only after casting their votes that a single photographer had swept an entire category: youth. You can see all three images from Liron Gertsman, our youth winner, below, as well as the adult winners and honorable mentions. Congratulations to all featured here, and thank you to each and every entrant for your dedication to birds.
Kenn Kaufman: Bird-guide author, Audubon field editor
Melissa Groo: Professional photographer and 2015 Grand Prize winner
Steve Freligh: Co-publisher of Nature's Best Photography
Allen Murabayashi: Chairman and co-founder, PhotoShelter
Sabine Meyer: Audubon photography director
Judging criteria: Technical quality, originality, artistic merit
Grand Prize Winner Steve Mattheis
Species: Great Gray Owl
Location: Teton County, Wyoming
Camera: Nikon D850 with Nikon 300mm AF-S f/4E PF ED VR lens; 1/1000 second at f/4; ISO 1600
Story Behind the Shot: After a six-week drought, I finally spotted a Great Gray flying through the woods on a beautiful fall evening. I ran to catch up, and spent 80 minutes photographing it flying from perch to perch, hunting, and catching several rodents. As I took this image, I knew I was seeing something special: The owl was fighting for balance on a thin branch, giving a very unusual, energetic, asymmetric posture as it stared directly into my lens.
Bird Lore: The Great Gray Owl is a superb hunter. From a perch it watches with eyes larger than a human’s, listens with ears so keen it can detect prey beneath a foot of snow, and attacks silently, due to sounddampening feathers.
Professional Winner Gary R. Zahm
Species: Black-necked Stilt
Location: Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens; 1/1250 second at f/13, EC -1/3; ISO 800
Story Behind the Shot: On a 27-degree December morning I spotted a small flock of Blacknecked Stilts huddled together in a seasonal wetland. Bills tucked beneath their wings, the normally hyperactive waders seemed in no hurry to start foraging. Moving slowly, I closed the distance without disturbing their tranquility. The soft light illuminated the wall of weeds and the stilts’ striking plumage. Their reddish legs melded into the reflection. I felt peaceful capturing the image, knowing these birds have a pristine home in our invaluable national wildlife refuge system.
Bird Lore: With their needle-like beaks, Black-necked Stilts snap up insects and crustaceans on mudflats and the surfaces of shallow waters (they tend to avoid getting their breast feathers wet). As wetlands have disappeared, the lanky waders have declined, a trend that conservationists are working to help reverse, partnering with landowners who flood fields to provide critical breeding habitat.
Freebie alert! Download our handy Audubon Bird Guide app to learn more about the Black-necked Stilt and 800 other North American species.
Professional Honorable Mention Donald Quintana
Species: Red-winged Blackbird
Location: Merced National Wildlife Refuge, California
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS USM lens; 1/800 second at f/5.6; ISO 1000
Story Behind the Shot: A trip to Merced NWR is always a magical event, no matter how many times I visit. On this particular day I was leading three fellow photographers, and we heard the wonderful gurgled-dee-glee of a Red-winged Blackbird just outside our vehicle, which we were using as a blind. As it sang its aria from the twigs of a nearby plant, we clicked away, hoping to capture the bright red epaulets on its wings as it puffed up to serenade any nearby prospective mates.
Bird Lore: During the breeding season, the male Red-winged Blackbird establishes and vociferously defends his territory, whether it’s on a sprawling prairie or in an urban park. A single bird might woo as many as 15 mates; you can tell that a female has taken up residence when she sings in response to the male’s rich, musical call.
Amateur Winner Diana Rebman
Species: Long-tailed Tit
Location: Akan-Mashu National Park, Japan
Camera: Nikon D500 with Nikon 300 f2.8 lens; 1/5000 second at f/6.3, EC -0.3; ISO 1600 Story
Behind the Shot: On a bitingly cold February day we stopped to photograph Whooper Swans, but the conditions were not good: gray skies, whipping winds, and the swans were dirty. As I headed back to the van, I noticed these darling tits taking turns nibbling on the tip of an icicle. I grabbed hand warmers, a tripod, and my longest lens and spent hours photographing this amazing behavior. What an adaptation! You have to be clever to survive such harsh conditions.
Bird Lore: Like their distant chickadee relatives in North America, Long-tailed Tits are highly social and adaptable birds. In winter, they rove in small flocks made up of family members during the day and roost together at night. Their cooperative nature carries through the nesting season, with non-breeding kin pitching in to help care for the young.
Amateur Honorable Mention Scott Suriano
Species: Wood Duck
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Camera: Canon EOS-1D X Mark II with Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens; 1/1000 second at f/4; ISO 1000
Story Behind the Shot: Undeterred by heavy snow on the first day of spring, I navigated slick roads to a nearby pond where Wood Ducks had recently returned. I donned my waders, grabbed my camera, and slipped into the frigid water. Trying to keep a low profile, I went too far, and icy water poured into my waders. Soaked and freezing, I stuck it out long enough to get this shot of a Wood Duck drake, whose expression seems to capture how we both felt about the weather.
Bird Lore: Wood Ducks are named for the fact that they nest in tree cavities. Their slim bodies allow them to slip into the narrow openings, and their large eyes help them navigate the branches as they fly through woodlands. While both males and females are born with brown eyes, males’ irises turn completely red by around five months old.
Youth Winner Liron Gertsman
Species: Cobalt-winged Parakeet
Location: Yasuní National Park, Ecuador
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5- 5.6L IS II USM lens; 1/30 second at f/13; ISO 250
Story Behind the Shot: Three days in a row I waited in a blind near a clay lick that Cobalt-winged Parakeets and other birds of the Amazon frequent. When hundreds of the birds finally descended from the tree canopy to the mineral-rich forest floor on the third morning, I was ready. I used a slow shutter speed to accentuate the blues in their wings. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of the birds or the deafening roar of parakeet chatter.
Bird Lore: Cobalt-winged Parakeets inhabit the humid forests east of the Andes, from Venezuela to Bolivia. The garrulous birds consume an acidic diet of berries and fruits; it's thought that the clay they ingest, at formations like this one on a riverbank in Yasuní, acts as a natural antacid. Other parakeets, as well as parrots and macaws, also visit such sites regularly.
Youth Honorable Mention Liron Gertsman
Species: Bald Eagle
Location: Delta, British Columbia, Canada
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens; 1/160 second at f/5.6; ISO 640
Story Behind the Shot: This is the most cooperative Bald Eagle I’ve ever encountered. Thousands of eagles are drawn to Fraser River Delta each autumn to feed on the salmon runs; when those end, hundreds feed at the nearby landfill and can be seen in the surrounding area throughout the winter. I found this one perched on a tree stump beside a popular walking trail on a windy, rainy day. I took many photos, but I especially liked this one for the way it illustrates the power and awe of this emblematic species.
Bird Lore: Bald Eagles are opportunistic foragers, but fish are their preferred sustenance. When snatching live prey, they grab the animal with one or both feet, locking on with a vice-like grip. The firm hold enables the raptors to carry their meal to a perch a safe distance from the would-be thieves that gather in large numbers in winter.
Youth Honorable Mention Liron Gertsman
Species: Fawn-breasted Brilliant
Location: Mindo, Ecuador
Camera: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens; 1/5000 second at f/5.6; ISO 500
Story Behind the Shot: While observing this Fawn-breasted Brilliant hummingbird in the cloud forest, I noticed that it kept returning to the same perch, using it as a base for catching flying insects. The sky was bright, so the bird was beautifully silhouetted, and I knew the exact shot I wanted. I did my best to time my shutter finger with the bird taking off and landing, and when I looked at the screen, I was amazed by the transparency of the feathers and the details brought out by the backlight.
Bird Lore: Like most species of brilliant, the Fawn-breasted occupies humid montane forests in the Andes of Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. The solitary hummers feed primarily on nectar, but also snatch small insects out of the air. Males and females look nearly identical, though the pink throat patch on the latter may be slightly smaller.
See this year's Top 100 here.
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