Photography, at its best, can heighten our awareness, allowing us to see the world more clearly. The same could be said about birding. And when we combine the two, magical things happen.
Focusing our attention on the winged wonders that share our planet can reveal everything from the finest details to the largest patterns of life, as shown by many of the 8,770 images and 261 videos entered in this year’s contest. From the admissions focused on native flora for our Plants for Birds category to the more artistic compositions for the Fisher Prize, our judges were once again amazed by the beauty and breadth of entries. We thank all 2,416 photographers for sharing their visions with us.
This year we expanded the competition with two new prizes: a Video Award, for a new video category, and a Female Bird Prize, awarded to the best photograph of a female bird across all divisions. We also continued our tradition of bestowing the Fisher Prize on the image that takes the most creative approach to photographing birds, and a Plants for Birds Award to the top photograph depicting the relationship between native plants and birds
One trend became clear after the judging was completed: In contrast to recent years, few of the winning images emerged from far-flung expeditions. Most were taken by photographers working close to home. This may be a reflection of the many ways that birds provided solace during the challenging and restrictive conditions brought on by the pandemic.
Professional Award Winner: Steve Jessmore
- Species: Northern Cardinal
- Location: Rural Muskegon County, Michigan
- Camera: Sony a9 II with Sony FE 200- 600mm f/5.6-6.3 G OSS lens; 1/5000 second at f/6.3; ISO 250
- Story Behind the Shot: On a bitterly cold winter day I went searching for eagles and Snowy Owls in rural Michigan. Cruising side roads, I noticed a Rough-legged Hawk perched atop a pine tree, but all I captured was its tail as it flew away. It was then that I spotted a male Northern Cardinal flying from plant to plant, feeding on the seeds, his red feathers reflected in the bright white snow flecked with ice crystals. I took the first shot when he took flight. By the second frame, the striking songbird was gone.
Grand Prize: Carolina Fraser
- Category: Amateur
- Species: Greater Roadrunner
- Location: Los Novios Ranch, Cotulla, Texas
- Camera: Nikon D500 with Nikon 500mm f/4.0 lens; 1/3200 second at f/6.3; ISO 2000
- Story Behind the Shot: One of my favorite places to take photographs is among the oil pumps and open space at Los Novios Ranch in South Texas, where wildlife weaves through cacti and birds perch on fence posts. On a blazing hot summer day just before sunset, I found myself lying facedown at an uncomfortable angle, my elbows digging into a gravel path as I photographed this roadrunner. I manually adjusted the white balance until I captured the bird bathed in golden sunlight as it took a dust bath.
Fisher Prize: Patrick Coughlin
- Category: Amateur
- Species: Anna’s Hummingbird
- Location: Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve, Berkeley, California
- Camera: Nikon D500 with AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR lens; 1/1600 second at f/5.6; ISO 1400
- Story Behind the Shot: For me, photographing feeding hummingbirds is a near-perfect combination of challenge and reward. In the spring, Anna’s, Allen’s, Rufous, Costa’s, and Calliope Hummingbirds—many of them adult males with glittering gorgets—sip nectar from purple pride of Madeira flowers in this preserve. When I looked through the photographs that I shot one spring day, this image of a relatively unassuming female, a juvenile Anna’s Hummingbird, immediately grabbed my attention. Though most of the bird is obscured by blooms, I caught that momentary flicker of eye contact through the petals.
Female Bird Prize: Elizabeth Yicheng Shen
- Category: Amateur
- Species: Northern Harrier
- Location: Coyote Hills Regional Park, Fremont, California
- Camera: Sony a9 with Sony 400mm f/2.8 GM FE OSS lens and 2x Teleconverter; 1/2000 second at f/5.6; ISO 1600
- Story Behind the Shot: I was waiting for Fernando the Chilean Flamingo to wake up from his afternoon nap. People have reported seeing the lone flamingo in the park since 2010, so I went out to photograph him. A commotion from the nearby water, where a Great Blue Heron stalked prey and a few gulls rested, attracted my attention. A Northern Harrier had come out of nowhere to hunt. I quickly adjusted my camera settings so I could get her owl-like face. This kind of unexpected encounter is why I always carry my camera when I venture into nature.
Youth Award Winner: Arav Karighattam
- Species: Purple Sandpiper
- Location: Rockport, Massachusetts
- Camera: Nikon D850 with AF-S Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens; 1/800 second at f/7.1; ISO 320
- Story Behind the Shot: I was searching for eiders, scoters, and other diving ducks along the Atlantic coast on a cold February day. Suddenly a Purple Sandpiper flock landed right next to me. The birds fed, chatted, chirped, and chased each other, occasionally fluttering up when the waves washed over the shore. As the weather turned gustier, the sandpipers preened and settled down amid the rocks. I lay down flat, close to the water’s edge. I positioned my camera, resting it on a rock, and focused on one of the Arctic visitors, the purple in its feathers highlighted by the morning sun.