Whether flying, hunting, breeding or preening, birds and their varied behaviors make for some stunning photos. From a female Baltimore oriole’s bright yellow feathers, to the iridescent shine of a pigeon’s neck, these winning shots from the 2023 Audubon Photography Awards showcase the beauty of bird life that can often go undetected.
Last week, the National Audubon Society announced the winners of the 14th iteration of its annual bird photography contest. A panel of 15 judges whittled down a submission pool of some 2,200 entrants from eight Canadian provinces, all 50 states and Washington, D.C. They looked at each image’s technical quality, originality and artistry.
The judges selected several honorable mention recipients and prize winners across eight categories, including one for videos and one for images of female birds.
The National Audubon Society holds the contestants to high ethical standards. As of last year, the nonprofit banned images taken using a technique called playback—when the photographer plays an audio recording of a bird’s own call or the sound of a predator. Some birders now see this as an unethical practice, as it can disrupt animals’ natural behavior, distracting them from activities such as feeding or protecting their young.
The organization also requires its photographers to leave a respectful amount of space between them and the wildlife. It suggests using telephoto lenses to zoom in, rather than closely approaching or baiting the birds. Birds nesting on beaches, in particular, require extra care, because frightened adults might leave their young vulnerable to predators or extreme temperatures.
Experts in bird behavior and ethical bird photography review all the images, looking for red flags that might suggest a photo was taken in a harmful way.
From the massive pool of entries, the images below rose to the top. They capture not only the beauty of birds, but their fascinating behaviors and the habitats that are critical to their survival. If you can’t get enough, Audubon magazine has shared a gallery of the contest’s top 100 photographs.
Grand Prize Winner: Rock Pigeon
It may come as a surprise to city-dwellers that the bird known for pecking at trash on sidewalks has earned the National Audubon Society’s top prize. But “when you take a minute to look closely at a pigeon, you’ll see that they’re quite beautiful,” contest judge Preeti Desai, the organization’s senior director of social media and storytelling, tells Audubon magazine. “In the right light, their iridescent neck feathers appear to glow.”
Liron Gertsman, a Canada-based professional nature photographer, captured this image of the much-maligned birds.
“I rarely point my lens toward pigeons, but I couldn’t resist as this pair, perched under a pier, carefully groomed each other’s feathers,” Gertsman tells the publication. “Purposefully exposing for the brighter parts of the image, I used the shadowy environment to create a studio-like black background for these remarkable iridescent birds.”
Though they have a reputation for being dirty, pigeons are fastidious creatures that frequently bathe. The social grooming behavior shown here, known as allopreening, is an affectionate courtship technique. Pigeon pairs tend to mate for life, stick together year-round and share parenting duties such as incubating eggs and raising their young.
Professional Award Winner: Atlantic Puffin
While on a road trip in Iceland, professional photographer Shane Kalyn and his wife heard a tip that they could see a puffin colony in the Westman Islands. About half of the Atlantic puffin’s breeding population nests in Iceland, where the rocky cliff sides create an ideal habitat.
After taking a ferry to the islands, the couple pulled over for a break.
“There, we saw a lone bird perched on the most amazing lava rock cliff, which was covered in colorful lichen and blooming wildflowers,” Kalyn tells Audubon. “It was raining, and the sky was dark, creating a moody tone. I knew this moment was special.”
Amateur Award Winner: Chinstrap Penguin
Amateur photographer Karen Blackwood was watching a group of gentoo penguins in Antarctica’s iceberg-filled Cierva Cove, when she noticed a lone chinstrap penguin standing on an iceberg.
“It peered over the edge, and I knew it was going to jump,” Blackwood says to Audubon. “I adjusted my settings, keeping in mind the pitching boat, moving iceberg and penguin that would soon be in midair. The bird jumped directly in front of me, diving straight into the water. I caught it just before it slipped beneath the waves and got both eyes and its perfect shape.”
Youth Award Winner: Dunlin
In Barnegat Light, New Jersey, a group of sandpipers stood on the rocky shoreline, foraging for a meal. Each time a wave came in, the birds would take flight for a few moments, just in time to avoid being swept into the ocean. Watching them, photographer Kieran Barlow tells Audubon he “became enraptured.”
“I hunkered down between boulders and waited,” he tells the publication. “It was a challenge not to fall between the wet, seaweed-covered rocks into the water.”
But by the time an hour had gone by, Barlow had captured this photograph of a dunlin taking flight with little time to spare before the wave hit the shore.
Female Bird Prize: Baltimore Oriole
Though the orange and black pattern of a male Baltimore oriole is perhaps more well-known—and featured in the logo for Baltimore’s Major League Baseball team—the species’ females are a sight to behold, and this one earned the Female Bird Prize.
This is the third year that the National Audubon Society has given this award, which is meant to highlight the female birds, which are generally less colorful than males and “often overlooked and underappreciated in birding, bird photography and science,” according to a statement from the organization.
Female Baltimore orioles construct a hanging pouch to serve as their nest, sometimes spending more than a week weaving together strong plant fibers to make a durable home for their young. Amateur photographer Sandra M. Rothenberg grew up watching the female orioles gather strands of grass or horsehair for their engineering feats. Now, she watches the birds in Warren, Pennsylvania, from behind a small blind, or a structure that hides her from the animals’ sight.
“This female barely landed to grasp a tangled clump of horsehair and natural hemp and sisal fibers caught on a branch. She was surrounded by a lacy, fluttering, diaphanous veil,” Rothenberg says to Audubon. “Off she flew into the woods with her prize trapped in her slender bill.”
Plants for Birds Winner: Verdin
In Tuscon, Arizona, amateur photographer Linda Scher saw her first verdin, a songbird that lives year-round in parts of the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. She watched a pair of them make a nest in a cactus known as cane cholla.
Scher came back to the site about a month later and found the verdins gathering caterpillars to feed their young. As the winner of the Plants for Birds category, the image demonstrates the relationship between the verdin and the flora in its native habitat.
“In this photo, we see the role that native plants such as cacti play in providing critical food and shelter for birds—even in the harshest environments,” contest judge Marlene Pantin, partnerships manager for the National Audubon Society’s plants for birds program, tells Audubon. “I am struck by how the cactus seems to envelop the bird, providing a sense of care and protection for it.”
Fisher Prize: Brown Pelican
While photographer Sunil Gopalan was on a cruise in the Galápagos Islands, the lights of the boat attracted fish to the site where it was docked. To feed on the fish, several Galápagos sharks appeared, as well as a brown pelican. They competed for the fish, with the bird lifting itself into the air when a shark came near it.
To Gopalan, this was a moment that had to be captured, so he waited until the shark swam beneath the pelican, visible as a blurred silhouette.
“An interaction of species like that is a photo opportunity,” Gopalan tells Audubon. “I didn’t know if this sort of photograph was common, but for me, it was special.”
Professional Honorable Mention: Northern Hawk Owl
This snowy photo of a northern hawk owl earned Grand Prize winner Liron Gertsman a second accolade. Unlike other owls that hunt with their sharp hearing at night, northern hawk owls hunt from a perch during the day, watching for voles or other birds to swoop down on.
Looking for these creatures, Gertsman trekked tens of miles through snow-covered terrain to find this individual at the top of a tree.
“Even with snowshoes on, I was sinking down to my knees at almost every step,” he tells the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Lisa Bryn Rundle.
Amateur Honorable Mention: Reddish Egret
Amateur photographer Nathan Arnold spotted this reddish egret while kayaking at sunrise in San Carlos Bay–Bunche Beach Preserve, in Fort Myers, Florida.
When one of these egrets hunts, it pokes its bill into the water to snatch a fish, then tosses the prey into the air before swallowing it whole.
“I took this photo as the light over my shoulder illuminated water droplets and a small fish, right as the egret flipped its breakfast into its bill,” Arnold tells Audubon. “The scene felt surreal.”
Youth Honorable Mention: Green-winged Teal
After a winter with much less snow than usual in Alexandria, Virginia, one day in February had a forecast for flurries in the morning. Photographer James Fatemi went to Huntley Meadows Park and found this pair of green-winged teals to be some of the only birds visible in the marsh.
“After a few hours, they began their courtship ritual and mating just as large flakes started to fall,” he says to Audubon. “I hung my lens over the boardwalk to get a water-level view.”
Plants for Birds Honorable Mention: Tree Swallow
One early morning, amateur photographer Vicki Santello was on a kayak in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya National Heritage Area, when she heard a noise like a loud hum.
“My ears guided me to the source: thousands of tree swallows hunting insects on the wing and water surface,” Santello says to Audubon. “Their collective wing-beating generated the noise.”
Above the water, tree swallows flew in wide sweeping motions, foraging by snatching insects out of the air. And those aren’t leaves on the tree branches—they’re even more swallows, tightly packed together.