Like humans, birds breathe. And on a cold day, the moisture from their breath condenses into steam that emanates from their beaks. Photographer Kathrin Swoboda knew this, and was hoping to capture it on film at the park near her house.
The metallic calls of red-winged blackbirds can be heard at marshes, shores, grasslands, and roadsides all over the United States. Unlike many other colourful bird species, red-winged blackbirds often stick around the same areas in the wintertime.
Swoboda arrived at the wetlands of Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria, Virginia early in the morning on Saint Patrick’s Day this year, hoping to photograph the birds blowing “smoke” rings as they cried out to defend their territory. She was able to catch the male bird singing in the morning sunlight, which lit up the vapour that formed little rings from his beak.
“Every spring I go there and try to get a shot with the backlit vapour coming out of their mouth when they sing,” Swoboda told Gizmodo. “It was on my long list of goals to try and capture that in the spring.”
The photo netted Swoboda the Grand Prize for this year’s 2019 Audubon Photography Awards.
This year is the 10th anniversary of the awards, which showcase the the best bird photography from amateurs and professionals, including photographers under the age of 18 (Disclosure: I have previously written for Audubon). This year, the Audubon Society also added a Plants for Birds Prize, to highlight the relationship between birds and native plants, and the Fisher Prize, to highlight photos with especially creative composition.
These photos were selected from 2,253 entrants and were judged by a panel of photographers, bird experts, and conservationists. Also, from a photography standpoint, I’ll note that some of the winning photos were taken with consumer-grade or mid-range camera bodies and lenses—a testament to the fact that photography is typically more about technical ability and being in the right place at the right time than it is about fancy equipment.
Grand Prize Winner: Red-Winged Blackbird
Professional Winner: Greater Sage-Grouse
Elizabeth Boehm caught these greater sage-grouses fighting on their lek in Pinedale, Wyoming. Leks are traditional gathering grounds where males protect overlapping territories, and put on their best audiovisual shows while females survey and pick the bird they find most attractive. Fights naturally ensue as males try to display on the best habitat.
Greater sage-grouses live among the sagebrush in the mountain-western United States and some of southern Canada. They’re the largest grouse, and males display using a pair of pendulous sacs they inflate with air. They’re recognised as a threatened species due to habitat loss.
Professional Honorable Mention: Bald Eagle and a Red Fox
Bald eagles will eat any meat they can, typically fish but also roadside carrion or, uncommonly, pet cats. Kevin Ebi snapped this photo at San Juan Island National Historical Park in Washington State. He was there photographing foxes when an eagle swooped in to steal the fox’s dinner, snagging the fox as well. The fox eventually dropped back to the ground, unharmed.
Amateur Winner: White-Necked Jacobin
Mariam Kamal photographed this white-necked jacobin sipping nectar from heliconias on a windy day in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica. White-necked jacobins can feed in a variety of different habitats, and like other hummingbirds, have long bills and tongues specialised for flowers. They’ll also snatch up small insects.
Amateur Honorable Mention: Great Blue Herons
Great blue herons are the largest of the North American herons and can be spotted across most of the country beside ponds, where they hunt for fish. Melissa Rowell caught a male and a female pair in the midst of a duel as part of a mating display in Delray Beach, Florida, as wind blew through their plumes.
If herons look particularly dinosaurian, that’s mostly because, well, birds are directly descended from dinosaurs. But they’re famous for their powerful bills, which they use to spear at fish and attract mates. They occasionally use their bills as weapons, and are known to stab wildlife rehabbers in the eye.
Youth Winner: Horned Puffin
Sebastian Velasquez photographed this horned puffin preening at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska. These birds live in the Arctic around Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Far-Eastern Russia. They can carry beak-loads of fish by the dozens back to feed their young. They breed on rocky cliffs, unlike other puffins.
Youth Honorable Mention: Bobolink
Bobolinks live for the grasslands, where they can be found throughout the country singing their frenetic, metallic “Robert of Lincoln” call. Garrett Sheets spotted this male perched in grass on a prairie in Lincoln Township, Missouri. These birds will stop by rice fields and ravenously feast on grain during migration—and they have one of the longest migrations of any songbird, spending the winter in southern South America. Like other grassland birds, the bobolink is declining as it loses its native grassy habitat to human development.
Plants for Birds Winner: Hooded Oriole with Fan palm
Hooded orioles breed in the far southern and southwestern United States and parts of Mexico, where they specialize in areas with palm trees. Michael Schulte snapped this photo in his backyard in San Diego, where a pair of these birds frequented the fan palm in his backyard. These birds use the palm fibres to weave tight, hanging nests beneath the fronds.
Plants for Birds Honorable Mention: Purple Gallinule on a Fire Flag
Purple gallinules come from the family of sneaky rails and spend their days wading through marsh foliage, but will also sometimes swim and dive into the water. Joseph Przybyla caught this adult climbing up a fire flag in order to eat the flowers.
You might think of the purple gallinule as America’s prime rail; not only is the bird beautiful, but it epitomizes many stereotypical rail traits. For example, rails are famous for occasionally wandering far outside their range. Though these birds breed in the southeastern United States and winter in South America, individual purple gallinules have wound up in California, Iceland, Portugal, and even South Africa.
Fisher Prize Winner: Black-Browed Albatross
Ly Dang spotted this black-browed albatross in the Falkland Islands, and was wowed by its namesake black brow. Like other albatrosses, this bird can live many decades and spends much of its life at sea. It breeds on islands throughout the far-south Atlantic and the south Pacific.