Mandarin Duck by Russ Burden, Sterne Park, Littleton, Colorado. “The stunning beauty of the Mandarin has made it among the most popular of all ducks," says Russ Burden of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. "Unlike other duck species, Mandarins are believed to be lifelong couples, and as such have been a source of inspiration portrayed in countless art forms and literary works by the peoples of Asia for centuries.”
© Russ Burden / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
African Bush Elephant, by Stuart Porter, Amboseli National Park, Kenya. “We encountered a blanket of haze and through this misty curtain we could make out two bulls feeding," says Stuart Porter of Nelspruit, South Africa. "I focused on one that had the rising sunlight behind him. A pair of cattle egrets perched on him as he fed. Without warning, the elephant began to lie down, startling the birds and causing one to take flight. It was thrilling to witness such an event.”
© Stuart Porter / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Leopard Stalking, by Stephen Belcher, Otjozondjupa Region, Namibia. “I was photographing this leopard as it lay in a tree," says Stephen Belcher of Christchurch, New Zealand. " When it jumped down and started walking toward my vehicle, I lay on the ground and started using my smaller 300mm lens before quickly getting back into the car. I have always wanted to capture a leopard’s piercing eyes looking straight ahead at ground level—the view its prey must have.”
© Stephen Belcher / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Emperor Penguin Family, by Marcello Libra, Weddell Sea, Antarctica. “While I had visited Antarctica before, this time I visited a colony of 4,000 pairs of Emperors," says Marcello Libra of Vercelli, Italy. "Being in such a magnificent environment to witness the family life of these penguins has been a very rewarding experience. As this pair of penguins was caring for its young, I laid on the ice to bring the perspective of another penguin to the image.”
© Marcello Libra / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
African Lion and Cub, by Lee Slabber, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Kalahari Desert, South Africa. “I had been following this pride in the Kalahari for a number of days, focusing on one youngster who was always causing trouble," says Lee Slabber of Cape Town, South Africa. "In this image, his father had been trying to sleep. The cub kept climbing over the adult’s head until the lion growled to warn it to back off. In a moment of brave defiance, the youngster just glared back at his dad. I loved the display of intimacy.”
© Lee Slabber / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
2015 Grand Prize Winner
Atlantic Puffin with Wild Iris, by Megan Lorenz, Elliston, Newfoundland, Canada. "Perched precariously on the edge of a cliff trying desperately to overcome my fear of heights,' says Megan Lorenz, Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada, "I watched this Atlantic Puffin pull a Wild Iris from the ground and walk along the cliff toward me. He stopped for a moment and I had enough time to capture him with the blue sky in the background before he dropped the Iris over the side where his mate was waiting at the burrow entrance."
© Megan Lorenz / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Dall's Sheep, by Cheryl Opperman, Denali National Park, Alaska. www.cherylopperman.com. “Photographing mountain sheep can be a daunting task typically starting with a long hike straight up a steep, rocky slope," says Cheryl Opperman of Littleton, Colorado. "This pair was found high above a valley during autumn. Rams may be best known for their horn clashing, signaling the rut. But on this day, they seemed more interested in companionship than establishing order. It is endearing moments like these that make the arduous hikes worthwhile."
© Cheryl Opperman / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Polar Bear Cub, by Florian Schulz, Barents Sea, Norway. “During an expedition to document Arctic wildlife," says Florian Schulz of Wilhelmsdorf, Germany, "I observed a polar bear family from a small, ice-going vessel. The mother and her cubs were living on pack ice far from land. Incredibly intelligent animals, young polar bears learn quickly through their inquisitive nature. This cub was intrigued by its reflection and was studying it with great interest.”
© Florian Schulz / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Blue Shark by Nuno Sá, Faial Island, Azores, Portugal. “Diving into the blue, ten miles off the coast of Faial Island," says Nuno Sá from the Azores in Portugal, "I watched a torpedo-shaped shadow rapidly approaching from deep, dark waters. As it came closer, its long pectoral fins gave it a form that reminded me of a jet plane; it was a six-foot-long blue shark."
© Nuno Sá / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
Mountain Gorilla, by John Reiter, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. “My guide and I had climbed for hours up a 10,000-foot-high volcanic mountain through bamboo rainforest until we found ourselves within about 20 feet of a family of endangered gorillas in their natural habitat, says John Reiter of Mahwah, New Jersey. "Observing this nearly 500-pound, chest-beating silverback was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.”
© John Reiter / Nature's Best Photography Awards. Courtesy of Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History
From a perch on the precarious cliffs in Newfoundland, to a hazy morning in the South African bush, to the frozen coastline in Antarctica, these pictures capture awe-inspiring glimpses of nature from around the globe.
These images are only a taste of the new exhibit, “
The Best of the Best,” on display at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the annual Windland Smith Rice International Awards for Nature’s Best Photography, the exhibit showcases more than 100 pictures culled from the nearly 500,000 submissions over the last 20 years and captures nature’s most gorgeous offerings.
For more breathtaking views, visit "Nature's Best Photography Presents: The Best of the Best. Windland Smith Rice International Awards" on display now at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., through October 2016.