With thousands of images to consider, the 2010 contest, run in association with Nature's Best Photography, came down to the wire.
When John James Audubon explored the American wilderness almost two centuries ago, the concept of photography was still in its infancy. The great artist lived long enough to pose, in the late 1840s, for a daguerreotype. But no doubt he would have been astonished to know that this cumbersome process would evolve so far that it could be used to capture vibrant action pictures of birds in the wild.
Photographic equipment continues to evolve at a dizzying pace. Leading nature photographers of the past--such as the late Allan Cruickshank, whose bird portraits often graced the cover of this magazine in the mid-20th century--would probably be amazed by such developments as autofocus, image stabilization, and the digital revolution. People who take up bird photography today have a remarkable array of tools at their disposal.
[gallery:7931|align:left|caption:GALLERY Explore more 2010 winners.]
But even with the proliferation of high-tech gear, the ability to take great bird photos continues to be an elusive art. To paraphrase Lance Armstrong, it's not about the camera. The best equipment in the world won't make you a good photographer. In a similar vein, many people before Audubon had access to paints and brushes and paper, and the birds had always been around, available for portraiture. The difference was in Audubon's eye and mind, not in the tools he used.
So it is with bird photography today. It helps if you have good cameras and lenses and if you put in a lot of time and hard work. It doesn't hurt to have a little luck either. But then there's something more. The best bird photographers have a gift for truly seeing birds, for understanding how they move and how they fit into their surroundings, and for finding those ideal moments that show the birds at their finest. The winners on these pages have captured that crystallized vision of birdlife, reminding us that these are creatures worth admiring and preserving for future generations.
Photographer: Dennis Goulet
Species: Green-breasted Mango
Where: Cordillera de Talamanca, Costa Rica
Camera: Canon EOS 7D; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/200 at f/18; ISO 320
"Typically a hummingbird will come in and feed for 30 to 40 seconds," says Dennis Goulet, a retired electronics engineer. In this case, however, bees were starting to congregate, forcing the hummers away from the feeders. But "they're not just flying away," he adds. "They want to hover there to see if they get another chance to get in."
Bird Lore: Mangos are large tropical hummingbirds with colorful tails. Most of the seven species are sedentary, but the green-breasted mango is migratory in eastern Mexico, and sometimes wanders farther: Rare strays have appeared at hummingbird feeders as far north as Wisconsin.
Professional, First Place
Photographer: Keith Szafranski
Species: Emperor Penguin
Where: Near Snow Hill Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark II; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/400 at f/8; ISO 100
"There's a very good possibility that none of those five penguins are related," says professional photographer Keith Szafranski, who shot about 5,000 pictures of this colony, discovered in 1997. "It looks like a nice family group, but emperors lay only one egg. They do take care of each other's young. One adult might be taking care of 20 young."
Bird Lore: Birds of extremes, emperor penguins begin their breeding cycle at the onset of the coldest season. The male emperor incubates the single egg (on his feet!) for two months in the Antarctic winter, through colder temperatures than those endured by any other bird.
Professional, Second Place
Photographer: Keith Szafranski
Species: Bald Eagle
Where: Near Homer, AK
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark II; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/500 at f/5.6; ISO 200
"He's making a quick turn to come down and get a fish," says Keith Szafranski, of the bald eagle. "That stuff happens so fast." In fact, Szafranski almost missed the shot. "In less than an eighth of a second, he flipped over and flipped back. It's pretty amazing."
Bird Lore: Despite their size, bald eagles are agile fliers. Slow glides, bursts of speed, and rolls are all common when eagles pursue prey or interact with each other.
Professional, Third Place
Photographer: Robert Amoruso
Species: Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds
Where: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark III; Canon 600mm lens; 1/20 at f/4; ISO 160