Many Great Dusky Swifts flying above a misty waterfall.
Photo: Francesco Filippo Pellegrini. All photos via Bird Photographer of the Year.

33 Stunning Photos That Show the Delicate Beauty of Birds

The breathtaking winners of the prestigious 2020 Bird Photographer of the Year competition

The Bird Photographer of the Year competition is a prestigious photography contest organized by bird-conservation charity Birds on the Brink. The recently announced winners of its fifth annual competition were chosen from out of 15,000 entries sent in from more than 60 different countries.

This year’s competition, which seeks to be a “celebration of avian beauty and diversity,” has produced a stunning array of images, showcasing birds in various habitats, from the forests of Norway to the mountains of Ecuador to the capital of Sri Lanka. The overall winner was a gorgeous impressionistic image of a European Shag in Norway by Kuwaiti photographer Majed AlZa’abi, but each of the finalists across a number of categories has something to say about the grace, beauty, and spirit of birds the world over.

Best Portrait

Bronze Award: ‘A Dipper in the Mirror’ (Terje Kolaas, Norway)

A White-Throated Dipper looking at its reflection in perfectly still black water.
White-Throated Dipper, Norway. Photo: Terje Kolaas

As a general rule, White-Throated Dippers tend to prefer the fast-flowing parts of the river they live in. However, this unusual and atypical individual had its favored fishing spot in a calm pond close by.

Silver Award: ‘Cormorant Underwater View’ (Greg Lecoeur, France)

A cormorant swimming in water, surrounded by a school of tiny fish.
Brandt’s Cormorant, Mexico. Photo: Greg Lecoeur

To achieve this portrait, rather than chase the bird I tried to blend into the scenery, as much as a diver ever can, and waited for the cormorant to swim by, framed by the fish it was trying to catch.

Gold Award: ‘End of the Day’ (Majed AlZa’abi, Kuwait)

Almost abstract photo of two European Shags in front of large bokeh.
European Shag, Norway. Photo: Majed AlZa’abi

By experimenting, I aimed to create artistic and impressionistic shots of shags, and I hope I achieved my goal with this image.

Bird Behavior

Bronze Award: ‘Ropewalker’ (Nicolas Reusens, Sweden)

A hummingbird perched on another hummingbird’s long, thin beak.
Sword-Billed Hummingbird, Ecuador. Photo: Nicolas Reusens

On my last trip to Ecuador I had the luck of watching a very unusual bird coming to a feeder — the incredible Sword-Billed Hummingbird! It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and also of a very shy bird.

Silver Award: ‘Feeding Frenzy’ (Greg Lecoeur, France)

8 Cape Gannets diving deep in dark water toward a school of fish.
Cape Gannet, South Africa. Photo: Greg Lecoeur

Every year, vast shoals of sardines migrate along the South African coast and predictably attract all manner of predators — everything from dolphins and other large fish beneath the water, to seabirds diving from above. Among the latter, Cape Gannets are most in evidence and plunge-dive for their prey.

Gold Award: ‘Nutcrackers Fighting in the Snow’ (Roelof Molenaar, The Netherlands)

Two Nutcrackers sparring in front of a black background, water droplets spraying off them.
Northern Nutcracker, Bulgaria. Photo: Roelof Molenaar

Northern Nutcrackers are intelligent and rather sociable birds, and I took this photograph on a ski piste in Sofia, Bulgaria. The dark background emphasizes the snow and the backlit wings of the birds.

Black and White

Bronze Award: ‘Pyrography’ (Juan Pablo Plaza Pozo, Spain)

Black-and-white picture of a Common Hoopoe with a large spider in its beak, shown among tall grass.
Common Hoopoe, Spain. Photo: Juan Pablo Plaza Pozo

Intentional use of black and white, a catadioptric (mirror) lens, the sun as a backlight, and a Common Hoopoe. I hoped there was a good chance I could create a different image of a hoopoe feeding its chicks with a spider.

Silver Award: ‘Great Grey Owl’ (Daniel Stenberg, Sweden)

Black-and-white photo of a Great Grey Owl in profile.
Great Grey Owl, Sweden. Photo: Daniel Stenberg

As a photographer, sometimes you are just lucky. Most of the time you drive around you find nothing, but on this occasion I came across a Great Grey Owl using a post beside the road as a lookout.

Gold Award: ‘Single Room Available’ (Robert Sommer, Germany)

Many Common Starlings perched on squares in a window frame, silhouetted black against a white background.
Common Starlings, The Netherlands. Photo: Robert Sommer

One day, I spent the period around sunrise photographing a windmill in the northern Netherlands. By the end of the shoot, the upper part of the windmill was full of starlings. Because of the strongly geometric form, I decided that the image worked better in black and white.

Creative Imagery

Bronze Award: ‘Make-Up’ (Chengbo Sun, China)

An egret standing among lotus leaves in different stages of life.
Little Egret, China. Photo: Chengbo Sun

The egret was preening, and I combined this image with shots of lotus leaves in various stages of growth and decay to create an impressionistic scene, whose qualities are halfway between two and three dimensions in character.

Silver Award: ‘Phalarope Reflections’ (Terje Kolaas, Norway)

A Red-Necked Phalarope illuminated on its edges on dark water, with rainbow reflections from the camera lens.
Red-Necked Phalarope, USA. Photo: Terje Kolaas

A few Red-Necked Phalaropes were gathered on a small pond and a hill created a dark background, making the location perfect for backlight photography. The low midnight sun of Alaska made it possible to photograph through the “night.”

Gold Award: ‘Mandarin Abstract’ (James Hudson, United Kingdom)

A blurry photo of brightly colored Mandarin feathers.
Mandarin duck, UK. Photo: James Hudson

The Mandarin drake has arguably the most flamboyant plumage of any bird living in the UK. I wanted to create abstract images that captured the vibrancy of the duck’s feathers as well as the excitement I feel when I see these extraordinary birds.

Garden and Urban Birds

Bronze: ‘Electric’ (Carlos Cifuentes Torres, Spain)

A row of power lines receding into the distance; 3 of them have large nests on top of them. Many birds fly in the orange sky.
White Stork, Spain. Photo: Carlos Cifuentes Torres

It is estimated that more than 200,000 birds die each year on the Iberian Peninsula due to collisions with high-voltage power lines. Despite this, White Storks still build their nests on top of the electric towers, demonstrating their taste for using man-made constructions from which they can command a sweeping view.

Silver Award: ‘The Old Ship’ (Kiko Arcas, Spain)

A family of Black-Legged Kittiwakes perched on an anchor on the side of a rusting metal ship.
Black-Legged Kittiwake, Norway. Photo: Kiko Arcas

In the coastal town of Båtsfjord in northern Norway there is a small colony of Black-Legged Kittiwakes that breed in the most unlikely of places — an old ship.

Gold Award: ‘Photobombing a Game’ (Magdaléna Straková, Czech Republic)

Overhead view of four people playing basketball as a black crow flies in the lower left-hand corner of the photo.
House Crow, Sri Lanka. Photo: Magdaléna Straková

I was staying in an apartment in a high-rise building in Colombo and noticed this street basketball court under my balcony. When I noticed the crow flying by, I quickly shot a couple more frames. I immediately knew that this was the element I had been waiting for to “complete” my picture!

Young Photographers

‘Asian Green Bee-Eater Pair’ (Deeksha Diya Sambath, age 7, India)

Shallow-focus shot of two Asian Green Bee-Eaters perched on a thin, curving branch.
Asian Green Bee-Eater, India. Photo: Deeksha Diya Sambath

My dad is a bird photographer and has been my inspiration; I love to accompany him on his weekend photography outings. This pair of Asian Green Bee-Eaters are regular visitors to our backyard. I just love the colour of these birds and how they catch the bees in mid-air.

‘Back-Lighting’ (Ismael Domínguez Gutiérrez, age 11, Spain)

Backlit shot of a Crested Tit perching on a branch with moss on it.
Crested Tit, Spain. Photo: Ismael Domínguez Gutiérrez

This Crested Tit is perched on a twig, preparing to take a bath. The image was taken in the late afternoon as the sun’s rays added a warmth to the colors. By back-lighting the subject I was able to enhance the effect.

‘Seeing Double’ (Adam Lake, age 17, United Kingdom)

A Mute Swan on still water in a pond under a blue sky; it appears to be looking at its reflection.
Mute Swan, UK. Photo: Adam Lake

I saw this juvenile Mute Swan while volunteering at a local canal. I didn’t have my camera to hand, so I grabbed my phone and lay down on the tow path. This interested the swan, which slowly swam towards me cocking its head to the side. My position enabled me to capture the mirror-like image and the surrounding scenery.

Attention to Detail

Bronze Award: ‘Gannet Flower’ (Francis De Andrés, Spain)

Extreme closeup of a Northern Gannet, curled up.
Northern Gannet, Ireland. Photo: Francis De Andrés

This photograph shows the detail of, and contrast between, the colours and textures of the plumage of a Northern Gannet, concentrating on the area between the body and the neck. To some the photo resembles a flower; to others it is like the sun emerging amid a bank of cumulus clouds.

Silver Award: ‘Rainbow of the Forest’ (Mathias Putze, Germany)

Closeup of the shiny, variegated, rainbow-colored wing feathers of an Ocellated Turkey.
Ocellated Turkey, Guatemala. Photo: Mathias Putze

It was never my plan to take a picture like this. Just seeing this extraordinary bird was as much as I expected.

Gold Award: ‘Perfect Camouflage’ (Moshe Cohen, Israel)

A Eurasian Scops Owl next to a tree trunk, almost blending in due to the patterns on its brown feathers.
Eurasian Scops Owl, Israel. Photo: Moshe Cohen

This owl lives very close to my home — I know this because I hear its sonar-ping call in the night. The plumage is a superb match for tree bark and it puts this camouflage to good use by roosting in appropriate settings.

Best Portfolio (Georgina Steytler, Australia)

‘On the Run’

A Red-Capped Plover and its reflection on still water—apparently under a cloudy sky, as everything is white.
Red-Capped Plover, Australia. Photo: Georgina Steytler

I was fortunate to come across an inlet on a still day with almost mirror-perfect water and some cute little Red-Capped Plovers. I used a fast shutter speed to track this bird as it scurried across the water. I like the white on white, and I like the contrast of the small bird in a big watery world.

‘On the Attack!’

A Great Crested Grebe landing on water.
Great Crested Grebe, Australia. Photo: Georgina Steytler

Several pairs of Great Crested Grebes nest on a lake in Perth. This bird spied another grebe coming too close and was taking off to shoo the intruder away from his territory.

‘The Shake’

A Yellow-Billed Spoonbill standing in water; its reflection on the surface is blurry.
Yellow-Billed Spoonbill, Australia. Photo: Georgina Steytler

This part of the Avon River in my local area is not particularly attractive, but on this morning there was a beautiful mist across the water. This bird was catching the light of the rising sun and contrasted beautifully against the shadows. I lay low to the water and chose a composition that was out of the ordinary to engage the imagination, and I picked up the flecks of reflections in the water to add depth to the image.

‘Pacific Gull Blur’

A blurry shot of a Pacific Gull standing on the beach flapping its wings.
Pacific Gull, Australia. Photo: Georgina Steytler

The sun had set in a coastal town of Western Australia when I saw this Pacific Gull bathing in the waves. I used a slow shutter speed as it was quite dark, and experimented. This is a shot of the bird after it emerged from the water and flapped its wings to remove the excess.

‘The Preen’

Dark, dramatic shot of a Great Frigatebird preening itself.
Great Frigatebird, Australia. Photo: Georgina Steytler

This Great Frigatebird was preening in quite harsh sunlight. I positioned myself so that the shadow of a large tree was behind the bird. I then underexposed the background by several stops of light to take advantage of the dramatic lighting. I love the yellow shaft of the tail feather that is usually visible only when the birds are in flight.

‘White on White’

A white Yellow-Billed Spoonbill on a white background.
Yellow-Billed Spoonbill, Australia. Photo: Georgina Steytler

I like to experiment with exposures and minimalist compositions. In this case, I photographed the bird looking into the direction of the sun. Ordinarily, the bird would have been silhouetted, but I chose to overexpose by several stops, completely losing detail in the background but perfectly exposing the bird. The feathered edges of the bird were blown out, giving an appealing halo.

Birds in Flight

Bronze Award: ‘Fairy Landing on Earth’ (Shu Qing, China)

Two Whooper Swans landing on water, followed by trails caused by the camera being shaken.
Whooper Swans, China. Photo: Shu Qing

This image was taken in Sanmenxia City, China, using a slow shutter speed, while panning the camera to track the movements of the birds. The “shake” that resulted from hand-holding the camera only served to highlight and enhance the beauty of the flying swans.

Silver Award: ‘Touch and Go’ (Nikos Fokas, Greece)

Head-on shot of a Pallid Swift swooping over water so closely it’s made a splash.
Pallid Swift, Greece. Photo: Nikos Fokas

Pallid Swifts are breeding visitors to Greece, and during the summer months they perform spectacular dives into this small pool of water. They appear one after the other, as if they are competing to see which one will do the best dive or else the best surface-skim. This particular one won that year’s competition by performing a high-speed open-winged dive with a splash, catching floating insects while keeping eye contact with the camera. I would award it ten out of ten for style and performance.

Gold Award: ‘Hoopoe Flight at Low Speed’ (Gadi Shmila, Israel)

A Common Hoopoe flying against a black background, its wings creating swirls behind it.
Common Hoopoe, Israel. Photo: Gadi Shmila

I had this image in my head long before it was created. Once I found the exact location for the image, I began several attempts until I found the balance between blur and freeze.

Birds in the Environment

Bronze Award: ‘A New Beginning’ (Swayamsiddha Mohapatra, India)

An Indian Roller perched on a tall piece of grass, watching a wildfire burn.
Indian Roller, India. Photo: Swayamsiddha Mohapatra

What appears to be destruction is actually regeneration in disguise. This is a frequent sight in Kaziranga National Park during late winter, when every year the forest officials set the grassland alight, patch by patch; the practice is a part of habitat management. During the burning, a plethora of birds congregate near the site to eat insects that are driven out by the fire.

Silver Award: ‘Hawk Owl in a Mountain Forest’ (Pål Hermansen, Norway)

A round Northern Hawk-Owl perched on top of a snow-covered evergreen tree in a wintery landscape.
Northern Hawk-Owl, Norway. Photo: Pål Hermansen

This Northern Hawk-Owl spent several hours in the top of the tree, looking over the winter landscape for food. As I realized the bird was very bold and fearless, I carefully launched my drone and approached it very slowly.

Gold Award: ‘Swifts Over Iguazú Falls’ (Francesco Filippo Pellegrini, Italy)

Many Great Dusky Swifts flying above a misty waterfall.
Great Dusky Swifts, Argentina. Photo: Francesco Filippo Pellegrini

In Iguazú’s unique environment, the “swifts of the falls” find the perfect shelter for breeding. While I was staring at a feature called the Devil’s Throat, I saw flocks of these birds flying all around. Due to the mist caused by the falls, I struggled taking this shot as I had to keep the front of the lens free of water drops.

Formerly editorial director @BuzzFeed. Currently editor @Tenderly and writer at large. Email: JackAShepherd at gmail

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