For the past nine years, the National Audubon Society has honored photographers across North America for their intimate imagery of birds. This year, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the organization focused on images of migratory birds to highlight how the law has saved hundreds of species from extinction, dubbing 2018 "The Year of the Bird."
This year's grand prize winner was Steve Mattheis' image of a great gray owl. "After a six-week drought, I finally spotted a Great Gray flying through the woods on a beautiful fall evening. I ran to catch up, and spent 80 minutes photographing it flying from perch to perch, hunting, and catching several rodents," Mattheis said in his submission. "As I took this image, I knew I was seeing something special: The owl was fighting for balance on a thin branch, giving a very unusual, energetic, asymmetric posture as it stared directly into my lens."
This species lives primarily in Canada and in the mountains of the U.S. West Coast, according to Audubon. The bird appears large in size, but that's due to its massive plumage. They sometimes migrate to the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada during the winter when there are fewer rodents to eat. The bird is listed as climate endangered — meaning it lives in remote areas mostly due to habitat loss and disturbance.
The following images either won in their category or received an honorable mention. You can learn more about each bird and how the photographers captured these inspiring images.
"On a 27-degree December morning I spotted a small flock of Blacknecked Stilts huddled together in a seasonal wetland. Bills tucked beneath their wings, the normally hyperactive waders seemed in no hurry to start foraging," wrote Zahm. "Moving slowly, I closed the distance without disturbing their tranquility. The soft light illuminated the wall of weeds and the stilts’ striking plumage. Their reddish legs melded into the reflection. I felt peaceful capturing the image, knowing these birds have a pristine home in our invaluable national wildlife refuge system."
The black-necked stilt is recognizable to birders because of its thin legs, needle-like bill and slim wings, according to Audubon. The organization says the bird's numbers may be increasing because they are expanding into artificial habitats like sewage ponds and dikes and can be found across the South, Midwest and West. When in a natural area, they prefer marshes and other shallow bodies of water. One subspecies in Hawaii is currently listed as critically endangered.
"On a bitingly cold February day we stopped to photograph Whooper Swans, but the conditions were not good: gray skies, whipping winds, and the swans were dirty. As I headed back to the van, I noticed these darling tits taking turns nibbling on the tip of an icicle," wrote Rebman. "I grabbed hand warmers, a tripod, and my longest lens and spent hours photographing this amazing behavior. What an adaptation! You have to be clever to survive such harsh conditions."
The tiny, round long-tailed tit is a bright spot in the conservation of birds. Audubon says there are now twice as many in the United States as there were in 1969. They can be found throughout Europe and Asia.
Arguably, their most impressive skill is their nest-building. They incorporate spider webs with feathers and brush so the nests become elastic and can stretch as their eggs grow. Some nests can hold up to 2,000 feathers.
"Three days in a row I waited in a blind near a clay lick that Cobalt-winged Parakeets and other birds of the Amazon frequent. When hundreds of the birds finally descended from the tree canopy to the mineral-rich forest floor on the third morning, I was ready," wrote Gertsman. "I used a slow shutter speed to accentuate the blues in their wings. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of the birds or the deafening roar of parakeet chatter." (Gertsman also received two youth honorable mentions, which you can see below.)
These blueand-green parakeets (also known as blue-winged parakeets) can be found throughout the Amazonian regions of South America.
Because their range is vast, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the bird under the "least concern" category. However, IUCN notes that the bird's population is decreasing, but not at such a quick rate that would push it to "vulnerable" status. However, the population could drop by almost 25 percent over the next three generations due to deforestation in the Amazon.
Professional honorable mention
"A trip to Merced NWR is always a magical event, no matter how many times I visit. On this particular day I was leading three fellow photographers, and we heard the wonderful gurgled-dee-glee of a Red-winged Blackbird just outside our vehicle, which we were using as a blind," wrote Quintana. "As it sang its aria from the twigs of a nearby plant, we clicked away, hoping to capture the bright red epaulets on its wings as it puffed up to serenade any nearby prospective mates."
The red-winged blackbird is found in every continental state in the U.S. and in Canada and is comfortable making a home practically anywhere — marshes, fields, pastures and brushy swamps. They are known for helping each other and will work together to fight off larger birds like a crow or raven that tries to attack its nest.
They migrate in flocks up north in early spring with males arriving before females. They typically can be spotted in most places throughout the year though.
Amateur honorable mention
"Undeterred by heavy snow on the first day of spring, I navigated slick roads to a nearby pond where Wood Ducks had recently returned. I donned my waders, grabbed my camera, and slipped into the frigid water," wrote Suriano. "Trying to keep a low profile, I went too far, and icy water poured into my waders. Soaked and freezing, I stuck it out long enough to get this shot of a Wood Duck drake, whose expression seems to capture how we both felt about the weather."
According to Audubon, the wood duck was facing extinction in the early 20th century due to hunting and habitat loss from the harvesting of large trees. Then, the wood ducks' nest boxes received legal protection, and the population started to recover.
Thanks to successful conservation efforts, the wood duck can be found throughout the U.S. in wooded swamps, rivers and ponds. As far as migratory patterns, males will follow females during breeding season in the winter when they form bonds. Some females may prefer to stay in warmer, southern states and others may migrate up north. Therefore, a male wood duck could migrate up north one season and not travel far the next.
Youth honorable mention
"This is the most cooperative Bald Eagle I’ve ever encountered. Thousands of eagles are drawn to Fraser River Delta each autumn to feed on the salmon runs; when those end, hundreds feed at the nearby landfill and can be seen in the surrounding area throughout the winter," wrote Gertsman. "I found this one perched on a tree stump beside a popular walking trail on a windy, rainy day. I took many photos, but I especially liked this one for the way it illustrates the power and awe of this emblematic species."
The bald eagle, the iconic symbol of America, nearly faced extinction in the 20th century due to hunting and pesticide use. They received federal legal protection in 1940 under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which banned "the take, possession, sale, purchase, barter, offer to sell, purchase or barter, transport, export or import, of any bald or golden eagle, alive or dead, including any part, nest, or egg, unless allowed by permit." The bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species Act in 2007.
Even though their numbers are gradually increasing, Audubon lists them as "climate endangered," meaning the species is "projected to have only 26 percent of its current summer range remaining by 2080."
Youth Honorable Mention
"While observing this Fawn-breasted Brilliant hummingbird in the cloud forest, I noticed that it kept returning to the same perch, using it as a base for catching flying insects. The sky was bright, so the bird was beautifully silhouetted, and I knew the exact shot I wanted," wrote Gertsman. "I did my best to time my shutter finger with the bird taking off and landing, and when I looked at the screen, I was amazed by the transparency of the feathers and the details brought out by the backlight."
The fawn-breasted brilliant is a hummingbird that lives in the Andes mountains of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. IUCN says it's unknown if this bird's population is declining and its global population hasn't been quantified yet.
Like other hummingbirds, its diet is mainly nectar. Females also gather insects to feed their young and they pick the insects from spider webs and plants.
The Audubon Society received more than 8,000 submissions and judged them on technical quality, originality and artistic merit. Every photographer agreed to abide by the Audubon's Guide to Ethical Bird Photography.