Despite much Internet speculation to the contrary, birds exist. If you can’t find proof of this by looking out your window, the results are in for the 2022 Bird Photographer of the Year awards, and these bird images should set the controversy to rest. From purple-crested Turacos that appear to be kissing or maybe fighting (or both?) to peacefully sleeping penguins and curious owlets, this year’s honorees have captured moments in avian life that also speak to us, their human admirers.

“Once again our talented photographers have cast a light on the incredible diversity of bird life that we share our planet with,” Will Nicholls, director of Bird Photographer of the Year, said in a statement. “But it is also a stark reminder of what we stand to lose if we don’t continue to look after the natural world and fight for its protection from the many threats that exist today.”

Simon d’Entremont (Canada), “Waxwing Silhouette,” Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus in Kentville, Nova Scotia; Bronze award winner in “Bird Behaviour”
Erlend Haarberg (Norway), “Rock Ptarmigan Flight,” Rock Ptarmigan Lagopus muta in Tysfjord, Norway; overall Winner for Bird Photographer of the Year and Gold Winner in “Birds in the Environment”

Conservation is one of the central tenets of the awards, and this year the competition donated some £5,000 (~$5,800) to partner charity Birds on the Brink, which helps fund grassroots international avian conservation projects. With this focus in mind, it’s no wonder that Norwegian photographer Erlend Haarberg took the top overall prize as well as the gold in the “Birds in the Environment” category for his picture of a rock ptarmigan in flight off the rocky cliffs where they nest, with majestic fjords framed in the background.

“On this particular winter day, I was on my way to a mountain top by Tysfjorden to photograph landscapes,” Haarberg said in a statement accompanying the submission. “I had almost reached the summit when I spotted some ptarmigan tracks criss-crossing between the rocks, where the wind had uncovered some sparse vegetation. Soon a bird took flight, with the dramatic backdrop showing what a harsh environment this bird calls home.”

Ly Dang (United States), “Strut Performer,” Sage Grouse Centrocercus urophasianus in Colorado; Gold award winner in “Best Portrait”
Andy Pollard (Falkland Islands), “Sleeping Beauty,” King Penguin Aptenodytes patagonicus in Volunteer Point, Falkland Islands; Gold award winner in “Attention to Detail”

The competition ranged across eight categories, including Best Portrait, Birds in the Environment, Attention to Detail, Bird Behavior, Birds in Flight, Black and White, Urban Birds, and Creative Imagery. There was also a Conservation Award, Portfolio Award, Video Award, and several categories for young photographers.

“One of my parents’ friends, who lives nearby, took us on a hike to a location where she had seen Barred Owl chicks earlier in the week,” said “8 and Under” gold awardee Arjun Jenigiri. “Eventually we got to see four owlets, which was amazing. One landed close by and peered at me from behind a tree trunk in a way that seemed to express curiosity.”

Arjun Jenigiri (United States of America), “Hoot Are You?” Barred Owl Strix varia in Acadia National Park, Maine, United States of America; Gold award winner in “8 and Under”
Levi Fitze (Switzerland), “Facing the Storm,” Dunlin Calidris alpina in Heligoland, Germany; Gold award winner in “14–17 Years” and “Young Bird Photographer of the Year”

Another laudable young avian photographer is Levi Fitze, who won the gold award in the “14-17 Years” category as well as “Young Bird Photographer of the Year” for his portrait of a shorebird braced against a sandstorm.

Raoul Slater (Australia), “Silo Mural,” Galah Eolophus roseicapilla in Yelarbon, Queensland, Australia; Gold award winner in “Birds in Flight”

“Last autumn I spent a week on the tiny North Sea island of Heligoland,” said Fitze. “The weather was quite bad and I didn’t see a single nice sunrise. However, the opportunity to observe all kind of shorebirds made up for the conditions. When I saw a group of Dunlin struggling with a small sandstorm, I decided to risk my equipment and attempt to photograph them. I could really see on their faces how annoyed they were by the wind and sand flying everywhere.”

Kerry Wu (United States of America) “The Owlet and the Dump,” Barred Owl Strix varia in Hillsboro, Oregon, United States of America; Bronze award winner in “Urban Birds”

It seems that all the winners — and indeed, most devotees of bird photography — have a similar feel and sympathy for our avian fellows.

“The location is not a formal garbage dump as such, but rather a creek that runs through an urban park,” said Kerry Wu, who took bronze in the “Urban Birds” category for her heartbreaking image of a barred owlet navigating human trash in its habitat.

“The owlets bathe and play around the creek, which unfortunately is where rubbish is dumped and accumulates,” Wu continued. “While I was watching the scene, one of the owlets even picked up a large rusty screw and ‘played’ with it as if it were a twig. At one point it looked right at me as if to say, ‘What have you done to my home?’ The ravine is, but shouldn’t be, a dumping ground and this scene broke my heart. Nature is not a landfill site. We can do better. We must do better.”

With their capacity for flight, birds have always served to symbolize freedom and capture human imagination. It is hard to imagine a world without them, and the ongoing efforts of the Bird Photographer of Year Awards and the charities to which they contribute to the hope that we will never have to. All awarded images are published by William Collins in a hard-back coffee-table book featuring a foreword by naturalist and TV explorer Steve Backshall, which will be available online on September 15.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....