Smoke Signals: Blackbird's Breath Snags the Audubon Award for 2019

An incredible image of the visible breath of a bird has captured the Audubon Society's highest award for 2019.
Dana  Miller
2019 Grand Prize Winner: An American Red-Winged Blackbird breathes out visible notes of territorial song.Kathrin Swoboda/Audubon Photography Awards

Kathrin Swoboda, a nature photographer from Virginia, has claimed the Grand Prize from the Audubon Society's annual photography contest this year with her stunning capture of the cold-morning exhalations of a Red-winged Blackbird in a park near her home.

The context of the shot is made more interesting and symbolic by Swoboda's explanation of her desire to shoot the vaporous, vociferous calls of territorial males during the breeding season.

Essentially, the "smoke rings" she's documented so beautifully here, is science made visible -- the male announcing himself in sonic (and, in this case, visible) form to all nearby females and other males. 


In its seminal tenth year, the Audubon Photography Awards focuses exclusively on highlighting the works of amateur and professional photographers in the realm of bird imagery. The history of the Audubon awards skews toward imagery of avian life which showcase their oft-humanistic qualities.

Sebastian Velasquez, the Youth Winner for this year, revealed that he waited for hours at the SeaLife Center in Alaska just to be a part of what seemed to him a "private moment" wherein his colorful subject preened and groomed. The resulting glorious close-up of a Horned Puffin which garnered him the award is so anthropomorphic as to seem almost as if the bird took a studied, side-eyed selfie. 

A Horned Puffin preens for the camera at the SeaLife Center in Alaska.
2019 Youth Winner. Source: Sebastian Velasquez/Audubon Photography Awards

The day-to-day activities in the domestic lives of avian creatures and their bird-watching human counterparts line up in ways that seem to endear birds to humans with a unique power.

Mariam Kamal, the 2019 Amateur Winner illustrated this beautifully with her stunning shot of a White-necked Jacobin drinking nectar from a heliconia bloom in Costa Rica. Such birds, and such photographs, allow us to dream and marvel at our world in a child-like and innocent way that almost no other aspect of contemporary life allows.

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A White-necked Jacobin delves into a flower in search of food.
2019 Amateur Winner. SourceMariam Kamal/Audubon Photography Awards

Even in their foibles and follies, the mistakes and pitfalls birds can be subject to in the simple pursuit of life seem germane to human corollaries, as Kevin Ebi, this year's Professional Honorable Mention winner, found out one day as he was photographing foxes. Having spent the day tracking fox kits with his lens in the San Juan Island National Historical Park, Ebi was fortunate enough to accidentally record this trophy shot of a Bald Eagle stealing a fox's dinner, along with the fox itself for a wingbeat or two.

A Bald Eagle makes off with a fox's dinner, and the fox too, in San Juan National Historical Park.
2019 Professional Honorable Mention Winner. Source: Kevin Ebi/Audubon Photography Awards

Ebi's depiction of the shock of this collision moment is the wildlife equivalent of a human smacking head-on into another person coming around the corner of a building in a busy city or that moment on the train ride home when you realize you've picked up someone else's umbrella. Happily, we have learned that the fox made his way back to the ground unscathed.

We, humans, like to see ourselves replicated in the worlds of the wild, and the award-winning Audubon pictures tend to pull back the veil on how very like our own routines, habits, and neuroses the lives of animals can be. The panel of judges evaluating each year's contestants consists of ornithological experts, conservationists, and professional photographers. This year's contest included works by 2, 253 entrants, some of them under 18 years of age. 

Swoboda reveals that she snapped her majestic winning shot with a Nikon D500 early on St. Patrick's Day morning at Huntley Meadows Park in Alexandria after many prior spring seasons spent attempting to catch the Red-wing trumpeting his steam-engine presence to all passersby.

As the Red-wing Blackbird remains one of the most ubiquitous and consistently-recognizable birds native to North America, the image has taken on a uniquely benign and quietly patriotic timbre in an otherwise divisive world and serves not only the Audubon Society's stated mission to raise appreciation and awareness of avian life, but also stands as a reminder of our basic human need to remember the basics (like breathing) in an over-busy world. 

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