John James Audubon used to pin dead birds to the wall and quickly sketch them before they rotted. The resulting watercolors, a marriage of science and art, have influenced countless bird lovers since.
Thankfully, no birds died during the making of the winning photographs for the sixth annual Audubon Photography Competition. Today’s naturalists have the benefit of a camera and all the fancy tools that come with it — from illuminating strobe flashes to camera traps that capture rarely-seen moments. Even with all that, nature photographers still face the challenge of getting close-but-not-too-close so as not to disturb the birds or trample their natural habitats. More often than not, dark and blurry images far outnumber great ones — see Twitter’s #worstbirdpic hashtag for examples thereof.
Knowing that, it’s a delight to peruse this year’s Audubon Photography Competition entries. Melissa Groo captured her Grand Prize photograph while visiting a clumping of heron and egret nests in Port Richey, Florida. “It was dark and gloomy, and the sun would be setting soon,” she told Audubon. Since the light was too poor for action shots, she focused on the landed birds, noticing one Great Egret in particular with emerald green feathers around its eyes. “He immediately began to fluff out his feathers, then went through the most beautiful series of displaying poses,” she said. In the image, the bird stares out from a black background like an opal in a velvet box; coincidentally, egrets have come to symbolize conservation, having inspired the Audubon movement after poachers nearly killed them off in the late 19th century.
Like Groo’s portrait, many of the photographs honored in this year’s competition were captured almost by chance. Chris Gug had heard how double-crested cormorants dive deep into the Mexican Gulf of California to snatch fish out of the water, but when he visited in November, a local told him the birds were gone for the season. “Disheartened, I wasn’t even looking for birds and just concentrating on the fish,” he told the magazine. “So when the first cormorant dived right next to me, I was ecstatic! Over the next hour, four or five of them dived repeatedly to 40 feet deep until each bird had landed a catch.” After snapping his winning image, he didn’t see another cormorant for the rest of his trip.
Groo and Gugn were among 2,300 participants in this year’s contest, who collectively submitted 9,000 images in four categories (Amateur, Professional, Fine Art, and Youth). Five judges — Audubon Field Editor Kenn Kaufman, National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, Nature’s Best Photography author Steve Freligh, Audubon Creative Director Kevin Fisher, and Audubon Photography Director Sabine Meyer — evaluated each image based on its technical quality, originality, and merit.
Their selections aren’t only a testament to the beauty of the avian world, but also to our unflagging fascination with it, as epitomized by Audubon himself. As the ornithologist once wrote, “I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.”