Birds Splash, Strut, and Dive in Winning Audubon Photos

Audubon Photography Awards showcase birdlife on land and in the sea and skies.

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Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant, Grand Prize Winner.

 Joanna Lentini / Audubon Photography Awards

From an American dipper splashing underwater to up-close encounters with a tiger-heron and a northern jacana, the winners of the 2020 Audubon Photography Awards feature an array of birds from large to small, terrestrial to aquatic.

Winners for the 11th annual awards were chosen from more than 6,000 entries. Submissions came from all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and seven Canadian provinces.

Things were done a little differently this year as judges got together in a day-long Zoom meeting to choose the winning entries.

Joanna Lentini took the grand prize-winning shot of double-crested cormorants, above, in Los Islotes, Mexico.

"I’ve spent many hours underwater at this California sea lion rookery in the Bay of La Paz, but I had never before encountered diving cormorants there. Shifting my focus from the playful sea lions, I watched in awe as the cormorants plunged beak-first into the sea to snap at the sardines swimming by. Although I spent a long time admiring these birds, I didn’t see a single one catch a fish. Adding insult to injury, curious sea lion pups would zip by the hunting birds and nip at them from behind."

According to Audubon, cormorants are excellent divers, adapted to quickly pursuing fish underwater. They are streamlined when they dive, holding their wings tightly against their bodies, as they propel themselves forward with their powerful legs and steer through the water, using their tails.

Here are the rest of this year's winners and honorable mentions.

Fisher Prize Winner: American Dipper

American dipper
American Dipper, Fisher Prize Winner.  Marlee Fuller-Morris / Audubon Photography Awards

Introduced in 2019, the Fisher Prize recognizes an image that is as artistic as it is revealing. Amateur photographer Marlee Fuller-Morris took this winning photo of an American dipper at Yosemite National Park.

"I followed a little-known trail in Yosemite to the top of a small waterfall and sat at the edge of the pool. A moment later, a dipper flew in. The river was ­moving quickly, but it wasn’t too deep. So instead of diving, the bird stuck its head underwater in search of prey. I thought the spectacular splash would make an awesome photo. The bird kept getting closer and closer as I sat snapping ­hundreds of shots of that splash. I will treasure that afternoon as one of my favorite moments in Yosemite!"

According to Audubon, The American dipper, "lives on the edge—on the boundary between air and water, on the border between streams and their banks, and even on that vague margin between songbirds (it is one, technically) and water birds." The dipper can walk or fly, above the surface or below.

Amateur Winner: Bare-Throated Tiger Heron

Bare-throated Tiger-Heron
Bare-throated Tiger-Heron, Amateur Winner.  Gail Bisson / Audubon Photography Awards

The bare-throated tiger-heron in "stocky and chunky," says Audubon. It's most active at dusk and dawn, but will occasionally hunt for fish and frogs in bright daylight. Amateur photographer Gail Bisson captured this image of a bare-throated tiger-heron in Costa Rica.

"After a torrential rainstorm, I went out on a late-afternoon boat trip on the Tárcoles River. It was still raining when we left the boat ramp, but once the sky finally cleared, we spotted this bare-throated tiger-heron walking along the river. As the boat drifted by, the bird leaned over the bank to watch us. I raised my camera and quickly switched to a portrait orientation to capture the beautiful post-storm sky behind it."

Plants for Birds Winner: American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch, Plants for Birds Winner. Travis Bonovsky / Audubon Photography Awards

New in 2019, the Plants for Birds award category honors the top photographs illustrating the important relationship between native plants and birds.  

Travis Bonovsky knew that cup plants attract wildlife, so he patiently waited until he captured this photo of an American goldfinch.

"Through frequent visits to North Mississippi Regional Park, an area restored with native plants, I became familiar with the cup plant and learned that its leaves can hold rainwater, as the name suggests. I read that birds and other wildlife like to drink from these plants, so I always keep an eye out for bird activity when I pass by them. Finally one late July day I was lucky enough to witness a female American goldfinch plunge her head into a plant."

The American goldfinch is nearly a total vegetarian, according to Audubon. While other seed-eating birds also feed insects to their nestlings, goldfinches prefer to mash up seeds for their young. The cup plant traps rain, serving as a watering hole for wildlife. Later, the flowers will go to seed, providing a meal for goldfinches and other birds.

Professional Winner: Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird, Professional Winner. Sue Dougherty / Audubon Photography Awards

Frigatebirds don't swim; they often soar nonstop for weeks, sleeping as they fly. Male frigatebirds inflate their massive, red throat pouches as part of their striking courtship displays. Sue Dougherty caught this magnificent frigatebird in Genovesa Island, Ecuador.

"The sun was setting behind a frigatebird breeding colony in the Galápagos. The birds were very active and stunningly close, and the experience was all the more special because I was with great friends who were equally mesmerized by the scene. We got on the sand, lying on our bellies and hand-holding our cameras, composing silhouettes and starbursts on birds’ wingtips. I noticed this male, with his throat pouch lit up by the sun, and zoomed in to capture his portrait."

Youth Winner: Northern Jacana

Northern Jacana
Northern Jacana, Youth Winner. Vayun Tiwari / Audubon Photography Awards 

Vayun Tiwari had an up-close encounter with a northern jacana in Belize. These marsh birds have very long toes, which allows them to walk around floating vegetation as they hunt for seeds and insects.

"On a boat ride on the New River, I noticed a few northern jacanas on a patch of water lilies and asked the captain to stop. I hoped our vessel wouldn’t scare away the birds. I couldn’t believe my luck when one walked closer and closer to us. The boat was rocking, but when the bird stopped for a ­moment to peer into a water lily, I was able to set up and get this special shot.

Amateur Honorable Mention: Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird
Anna’s Hummingbird, Amateur Honorable Mention.  Bibek Ghosh / Audubon Photography Awards/

Human activities don't always help wildlife, as deforestation, farming, and building often destroys habitat. But Anna's hummingbird has taken advantage of human changes to the landscape. Formerly only found in Southern California and Baja, the bird has expanded its breeding area to Arizona and British Columbia. Planting year-round gardens has allowed the hummingbird to thrive in a broader territory.

Amateur photographer Bibek Ghosh took this shot of an Anna's hummingbird in California.

"Near my home in Fremont is a historic farm with a water fountain that’s a magnet for birds. I was by the fountain looking for warblers and other migrants when I saw this hummingbird, a year-round ­resident, exhibiting some very interesting behavior. It swooped in for a drink and then stuck around to play in the water, as if trying to catch a droplet. After several frames, I finally captured the bird succeeding at its game."

Plants for Birds Honorable Mention: Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler on an eastern prickly gooseberry
Tennessee Warbler on an eastern prickly gooseberry, Plants for Birds Honorable Mention.  Natalie Robertson / Audubon Photography Awards

Warblers primarily eat insects, but some also like nectar and berries. It wasn't easy for Natalie Robertson to capture this Tennessee warbler at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada.

"This warbler was difficult to photograph as it frantically hopped from branch to branch while foraging on a native gooseberry—one of the plants that flower in early spring in this part of Canada. Gooseberries are an important source of food for exhausted songbirds migrating north over the Great Lakes, and I was thrilled to get a clear image of this warbler drinking nectar from the tiny flowers."

Professional Honorable Mention: Greater Sage-Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse
Greater Sage-Grouse, Professional Honorable Mention.  Gene Putney / Audubon Photography Awards

The greater sage-grouse is known for its elaborate courtship dance. Dozens of males will gather each spring, strutting with their chests puffed out and their tails spread wide. Gene Putney photographed this male showing off in Jackson County, Colorado.

"In spring 2019 I made my first venture to watch the greater sage-grouse perform its courtship ritual. Late one afternoon I set up my camera at the edge of a rural road and used my car as a blind. This male was the first bird I saw, and he proved to be a great model. As he faced away from me, he provided a nice profile pose, and I thought it was a neat perspective to get his photo from behind."

Youth Honorable Mention: Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner
Greater Roadrunner, Youth Honorable Mention. Christopher Smith/Audubon Photography Awards

As part of courtship, many birds will present food to their partner. The male greater roadrunner often catches a lizard for his mate or gives her a large insect or piece of nesting material, according to Audubon.

Here, Christopher Smith captured a greater roadrunner and his gift on the San Joaquin River Parkway in California.

"While on a walk through a nature preserve in Fresno, I heard a roadrunner cooing to its mate. I followed the sound to find the bird clutching a gift for its partner: a really big fence lizard! The roadrunner perched on a post above me for nearly 10 minutes. The lighting was harsh and it was difficult to get the proper camera setting, but I managed to take this shot. I like how the photograph shows a small predator with its prey."