A photograph represents a single moment in the ever-changing web of life; it is a brief and irreplaceable record that brings immediate and long-lasting impact to both the image maker and the image viewer. There is a personal connection between the two, a celebration of creative talent and discovery that crosses boundaries of language and culture to inspire a deep appreciation for the natural world and our place in it.
Grand Prize Winner: Lion, Okavango Delta, Botswana By Brian Hampton, Rockford, Ill., and Naples, Fla. (www.brianhamptonphotography.com) The Okavango Delta in Botswana is a sprawling inland area that floods seasonally, forming a permanent source of water in the midst of arid habitats. This unique mosaic of islands and waterways supports one of the richest faunas in southern Africa. Lions have adapted to the wetlands and, as they travel through the constantly changing environment to stalk their prey, they are sometimes forced to swim or wade across rivers. "In order to join other lions tracking a herd of buffalo, this lion needed to cross a treacherous crocodile-infested river. Hearing the call of the others in her pride, she began to head for the waterway. I had to reposition myself several times to try to anticipate where the lion might come through the river. I had the good fortune of having my 600mm lens trained on the lion's eye as she exploded into a run, splashing through the shallow river. My companions and I huddled motionless as the lion came right toward us-then passed by. We all breathed a sigh of relief as she hurried to rejoin the pride."
It was with this clearly in mind that the annual Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards competition was born. Now, more than a decade since the program was first announced, hundreds of thousands of images have been entered by photographers at all levels of experience and from all parts of the globe. The international competition has become one of the most prestigious photo contests open to public participation. Each winning image was selected for excellence in light, subject, and artistic composition.
Dedicated in memory of the accomplished nature photographer and determined conservation advocate, Windland Smith Rice, the Awards program seeks to build upon her legacy in engaging the public through the creative art of photography and to use this important, educational medium to rekindle a passion for outdoor enjoyment, knowledge, and stewardship.
Winners and selected Highly Honored images are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, from now through May 3, 2009.
Birds Winner: Common Buzzard, Kiskunság National Park, Hungary By Zsolt Kudich, Budapest, Hungary (www.kudich.com) In the United States the name "buzzard" refers to vultures, but in Europe the name refers to hawks in the Buteo genus. Ranging throughout Europe and extending into Asia and Africa, the Common Buzzard typically breeds in woodland habitats near open countryside, where its loud, clear call can be heard. These robust, medium-sized birds of prey measure about 1.8 feet in length with 4-foot wingspans. Buzzards have a habit of jumping up and down in open fields, making a noise that sounds like rain to lure worms to the surface to be eaten. It is not unusual for groups of buzzards to perform this "dance" at the same location-up to 40 birds have been seen in a single field. "The new year brought significant snowfall to the Hungarian plain. Common Buzzards lurk over snow-clad fields where food is rather scarce and hardly visible. They cannot afford to lose even a little nibble, especially not to another buzzard. This photograph depicts the birds' instincts for survival and also for power."
Youth Photographer of the Year: Leopard Cub, Okavango Delta, Botswana By Matthew Burrard-Lucas, Age 18, Sevenoaks, Kent, England (www.mattbl.com) "The beautiful Okavango Delta in Botswana, with its profusion of wildlife, is incredible. Going out to explore in a 4x4 yields wonderful natural sights. On this particular morning, our guide heard over his radio that a female leopard and her cubs had been spotted close to our camp. It didn't take us long to get there. At first she was hidden away in dense bush, and her cubs were nowhere to be seen. Then, after about ten minutes, she appeared from the undergrowth and jumped onto a fallen tree, her cubs close behind. The mother seemed totally undisturbed by our presence as I focused on her wide-eyed, inquisitive cubs. When this mischievous leopard cub clambered onto the upturned branches, I framed the shot. The soft early morning light didn't cause harsh shadows, but the low light forced me to use an ISO of 800 to maintain a fast enough shutter speed. This was especially important, since I was only resting the lens on a bean bag. It was one of those moments when you hope the animal doesn't move before you can compose the shot and click the shutter. Thankfully, the cub remained still as I captured this portrait."
Wildlife Winner: Twin Polar Bear Cubs, Wapusk National Park, Manitoba, Canada By Jenny E. Ross, Truckee, Calif., (www.jennyross.com) Polar bear young are usually born in a snow den on land or, less often, on floating pack ice. They are tiny and helpless at birth, weighing about 1.5 pounds. After three months, when the mother bear breaks open the natal den, the cubs have grown to approximately 20 to 30 pounds. The family typically remains at the den site for about a week, exercising and adjusting to the cold until the cubs are ready to travel. Due to warmer temperatures in recent years, the breakup of sea ice on Hudson Bay is occurring earlier each summer, and these bears now have significantly less time to accumulate necessary fat reserves before being marooned on land. Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS) scientists predict that if present climate change trends continue to affect their hunting range, within the next 15 to 20 years most female polar bears in the region may be unable to reach the minimum body weight necessary to sustain pregnancy. "I had the extraordinary opportunity to photograph these young twin polar bear cubs while accompanying CWS biologists during field research in Wapusk National Park, one of the world's largest known polar bear denning areas. We located a mother bear near her den and saw that her cubs were still inside. The mother bear was immobilized with a tranquilizing dart so the health of this family could be assessed. When she was safely unconscious, the biologists began weighing and measuring her, while I slowly crawled inside the den. The cubs became so comfortable with my presence that they paid me the highest compliment by falling asleep as I photographed them."
Animal Antics Winner: Macaroni Penguins, South Georgia Island By Andrew Rouse, Bristol, England (www.andyrouse.co.uk) Macaronis are the most abundant of all the world's penguins and are the largest of the six species of crested penguins. Standing about 28 inches tall and weighing between 10 to 15 pounds, they have red eyes, red beaks, and elaborate crests of orange-yellow feathers. Macaronis inhabit the maritime Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions; their massive rookeries can be found on the rocky cliffs and hillsides of South Georgia, where an estimated 5.4 million pairs live. This rugged island in the Southern Ocean offers unique opportunities to observe wildlife amid unspoiled scenery, including the vast populations of seabirds and marine mammals that breed along its shores. "While I was hiking uphill to get into position for a high wide-angle shot of the bay, I spotted a line of penguins coming across a glacier. It made me laugh so hard-I knew I had to get a photograph to record the scene. After 30 minutes of slithering downhill on my backside (who says photography isn't fun?), I got my gear set up and spent the rest of the afternoon smiling as wave after wave of macaronis skied across the glacier in front of me."
Creative Digital Winner: Lunar Eclipse over Mount Shasta, Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon By Sean Bagshaw, Ashland, Oregon (www.outdoorexposurephoto.com) Lunar eclipses occur when the Earth passes between the sun and moon, casting its shadow on the moon's surface. Total lunar eclipses are relatively rare events, occurring about once each year. They can only happen during a full moon, when the moon and sun are on opposite sides of the Earth. However, lunar eclipses don't occur during every full moon because the Earth doesn't normally pass directly between the two. "An eclipse is only visible from the side of the Earth that is facing the moon when it takes place. If you happen to be on the wrong side, you miss the entire event. Another obstacle to photographing an entire eclipse is cloud cover. Even a single cloud passing in front of the moon for several minutes could eliminate the chance of capturing every phase of an eclipse. "The night of August 28, 2007, a spectacular total lunar eclipse was going to be visible from start to finish from the west coast of North America-provided that there were clear skies. A friend and I decided to try our luck photographing the event from a point high in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon. I would need to take separate images of the moon and recreate the scene as a composite of many frames. This turned out to be a benefit because it allowed me to zoom in with a telephoto lens and track the moon as it moved across the sky, capturing it in great detail. Right as the predawn light began to appear on the horizon, I took a wider landscape photo, knowing that I would later place various moon images in an arc across the sky. The result tells a six-hour story of a cosmic event in a single photo illustration. I doubt that I will get such an opportunity again in my lifetime."
Plant Life Winner: Pasque Flowers, Fertö-Hanság National Park, Hungary By Zsolt Kudich, Budapest, Hungary (www.kudich.com) Also known as the "Easter flower," the pasque flower is one of the earliest flowers to blossom in the spring, usually before surrounding foliage has fully emerged. The petals, in colors of blue, lavender, ruby wine, and white, open in the morning and close at night. Classical Roman legend holds that this plant sprang from the tears of the goddess Venus, and in dried form it was historically used for a variety of medicinal purposes. The Fertö-Hanság National Park is one of eight United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites in Hungary. Here habitat reconstruction is in progress to restore the fauna and flora of drained swamps and saline lakes, resulting in a sanctuary of unique botanical, medicinal, zoological, landscape, folklore, and ethnographical value. "The picture was taken in April, toward the end of the blooming period. A young pasque flower is surrounded by the fruits of its neighbors, thus showcasing all phases of its emergence. Capturing the different phases of the flower's life on a single frame is what makes this photograph special."
Indigenous Cultures Winner: Evenki Reindeer Herder, Kystatem, Siberia, Russia By Chris Linder, Seattle (www.chrislinder.com) The Aoluguya-Evenki have practiced reindeer herding and husbandry in the subarctic coniferous forests of Siberia for thousands of years. The Evenki are one of the most widely scattered nationalities of the Russian Federation; their territory reaches from the Dolgans, Evens, and Yakuts in the far north all the way south to Lake Baykal and the Amur River. This region is regarded as one of the world's founding areas of reindeer husbandry. "In March 2008, I traveled to the Siberian Arctic to document an international scientific expedition. During the expedition, we visited two small communities along the Lena River. The indigenous people who live there subsist primarily through hunting, reindeer farming, and fishing. We were honored by an invitation to participate in a traditional reindeer roundup. It took eight hours-bouncing along on sleds pulled by ancient snowmobiles in sub-zero temperatures-to reach the herders' camp. "The next morning, I photographed an Evenki family as they drove several hundred reindeer across frozen lakes and through taiga forests to a wooden-fenced corral. While the reindeer swirled in a giant vortex around their pen, this herder stretched out his arms in a gesture of appreciation for the amazing spectacle."
Endangered Species Winner: Golden Snub-nosed Monkey, Qinling Mountains, China Jeremy Woodhouse, McKinney, Texas (www.jeremywoodhouse.com) Found only in remote areas of central China, golden snub-nosed monkeys are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as "endangered" because their population has declined more than 540 percent in the last 40 years. Their tenuous grip on survival is constantly threatened by loss of habitat and illegal hunting for their fur and for human consumption. To help preserve and foster a regeneration of this gregarious primate, the Chinese government has enacted a number of protective laws, established reserves, and made the golden snub-nosed monkey a conservation priority. "My photos of the endangered monkeys are the result of persistence and determination to fulfill a vision I developed over the course of two trips to a research site in the Qinling Mountains. In order to photograph there, I first obtained permission from university researchers in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province. My accommodations there were rustic, the winters were harsh, and my camera bags still smell of smoke from the single potbellied stove used to heat the dormitory. I had a daily four-mile roundtrip hike along a river and up a slippery, rocky trail that consisted of about 800 steps, all the while carrying my tripod and camera gear-it was quite strenuous! Yet, in spite of the biting cold, I was able to capture this creature during a brief flurry of snow and came away with this composition that I liked." Equipment: Canon EOS 1D Mark II; 70-200mm lens; 1/20 sec at /18; ISO 400; Gitzo tripod 320 with Wimberley head.
Conservation Photographer of the Year: Sea Otters, Prince William Sound, Alaska By Florian Schulz, Wilhelmsdorf, Germany (www.visionsofthewild.com) "While scouting Prince William Sound by plane on an overcast day, we headed out low over a massive expanse of fractured icebergs and spotted a large group of sea otters. To capture this shot, I steadied my camera in the fast-moving craft as we approached from a steep angle. This image is part of my conservation photography project, 'Freedom to Roam,' which aims to increase awareness of the necessity to preserve wildlife travel corridors. "Just as America created Yellowstone as the very first national park, I see the potential in developing the first National Corridor, linking natural areas to each other to build a healthier and more sustainable ecosystem for wildlife and human communities." Nikon D3; 70-200mm lens; 1.4x teleconverter; 1/800 sec at /8; ISO 800. The 2008 Conservation Photographer of the Year Award, presented in alliance with the National Wildlife Federation, recognizes a special individual who has used his or her skills as a nature photographer to implement meaningful and measurable conservation efforts that inspire and educate the public about environmental concerns. Florian Schulz is a professional nature photographer with a mission to help protect endangered ecosystems across America. As a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), he is constantly searching for unique images that will inspire the public to take action. For more than 15 years, Schulz has worked on projects concerning wildlife corridors. These geographic arteries of unmatched biodiversity and pristine wilderness are essential for wildlife survival.
Oceans Winner: Lemon Shark, The Bahamas By Bruce Yates, Medina, Wash. (www.underwaterreflections.com) Found mainly in the subtropical Atlantic coasts of North and South America, lemon sharks typically range from 8 to 10 feet in length; the longest recorded lemon shark exceeded 12 feet. Not normally hostile to humans, these sharks can be very aggressive when their young are nearby. Like most aquatic species, sharks were once thought to be of low intelligence and to operate in simple social orders. But although very little is known about adult shark behavior, recent research has led scholars to challenge this belief. Large groups of lemon sharks have been observed in what appears to be annual mating and reproduction journeys like those of salmon and other species. Lemon sharks' adaptability to life in captivity may provide keys to heightened understanding of and appreciation for all marine species. Broad research efforts, such as the Cooperative Shark Tagging Program, have involved thousands of recreational and commercial fishermen and researchers. They have tagged more than 100,000 sharks in the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico; lemon sharks are one of seven species that comprise 88 percent of the program's "recaptures." Designated a highly migratory species, lemon sharks are protected from commercial overfishing by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service. "Of all the sharks I've photographed, this eight-foot lemon shark on the surface at sunset is the only one with what I would call an 'expression' on its face. I took advantage of the camera's high frame rate, using a fisheye lens in a partially submerged underwater housing only a few inches away from its face."
Art in Nature Winner: Waterfall, Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand By Karen Garbee, Black Forest, Colo. Milford Sound is the most well known and accessible of the grand, glacier-carved fiords scattered along the southwestern edge of New Zealand's South Island. This narrow, 13.7-mile inlet off the Tasman Sea is one-half mile deep in some places and is hedged on both sides by rainforest-covered cliffs as high as 4,593 feet. Solid granite mountain peaks rising from the waters of Milford Sound send waterfalls cascading over sheer cliff faces to the sea below, softening the area with a fine, calming mist. Native Maori legend tells how the fiords in Fiordland National Park were created by a mighty demigod who started carving them on the south coast; by the time he finally reached Milford Sound, his technique had been perfected. The park is a sacred place for the Maoris, who came into the area one thousand years ago in search of a green jade-like stone. They were the first to cast their eyes on the scenery that still dazzles tourists today. "On a boat tour of Milford Sound, the captain steered us very close to the base of this waterfall. The texture of the water captured my attention and the light was just right for a photograph. The scene was enveloped in a stunning blue, from the ripples in the water to the interplay of light and color. When I examined the printed photo back at home, I noticed all the shapes within the mist. But just above center on the right side of the image, I could see the shadow of a man's face. Now I see the 'face of Neptune' each time I look at this image."
Landscape Winner: Edith Creek, Mt. Rainier National Park, Wash. By Daniel Ewert, Pensacola, Fla. (www.ewertnaturephotography.com) Mt. Rainier, standing at 14,410 feet and containing 26 major glaciers, is the highest mountain in the Cascade Range, with one of the most glaciated peaks in the continental United States. Its beauty and wealth of flora and fauna led early conservationists such as John Muir to seek federal protection for the mountain and surrounding areas. Due in part to these efforts, Mt. Rainier National Park was established in 1899 as America's fifth national park. Some of the best views of Mt. Rainier can be found in the subalpine meadows at the base of the mountain. Every July and August, the heavy snowpack in Paradise Meadows melts away and a diverse array of flora burst into colorful bloom for a short but beautiful summer season. During this period, numerous wildflowers carpet the meadow floors. The abundant wildlife in these meadows include red fox, hoary marmot, pika, black-tailed deer, elk, black bear, chipmunk, and the rarely seen mountain lion. "I arrived at this location early in the morning just as the first rays of sun were lighting up the mountain and the meadow. I used a graduated neutral density filter to balance the light in the sky and foreground and I used a shutter speed of just over one second to intentionally blur the water movement of the creek. By using a tripod, I was able to keep the rest of the scene very sharp during the long exposure."
Environmental Issues Winner: Reclaimed Mountain Top, near Logan County, West Virginia By Cameron Davidson, Arlington, Va. (www.camerondavidson.com) Mountaintop removal, a major form of coal mining in Appalachia since the early 1990s, has been a cheap way to satisfy the growing national demand for energy, but its negative effects on the environment are incalculable. Entire mountain summits are blasted away so miners may scrape out exposed coal seams. Excess debris is often dumped into the surrounding valleys, affecting the entire watershed area-all the way to the Chesapeake Bay. Hundreds of square miles of Appalachia have been leveled, leaving polluted rivers and destroyed wildlife habitat. Some companies terrace the slopes and cover them with topsoil to prevent rainwater from washing down the hillsides and to promote new growth. "This scene of a 'reclaimed' mountain fringed by morning clouds is part of a long-term personal project on southern West Virginia and the impact of this type of coal mining on watersheds. Wanting to document the devastation of the once-thickly forested areas up close, I explored Appalachia with an experienced helicopter pilot. We flew from northeastern Tennessee across the southwestern tip of Virginia and deep into the coal country of southern West Virginia. Skimming 100 feet above the ground just after sunrise, I photographed the geometrical scars of this mined ridge that has been terraced and replanted in an effort to reduce erosion and flooding."
Weather Winner: Great Plains Tornado, Hodges, Texas By Eugene McCaul, Jr., Huntsville, Ala. Man's desire to accurately predict the formation, location, and direction of severe storms has led to increasingly sophisticated tools and methods. Post-World War II developments in aircraft, radar, and computer-based models have provided meteorologists with an increasing understanding of the internal forces, such as updrafts and downdrafts, and their association with observable storm regions. Organized efforts such as the Thunderstorm Project in the late 1940s and the Tornado Project in the early 1950s established the foundation for our current capabilities. A revolution in the 1970s saw great advancements in the performance and use of Doppler radar, numerical cloud models, and scientific storm chasing. The Tornado Intercept Project was developed in 1972 as a joint project between Oklahoma University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administartion's National Severe Storm Laboratory. The legacy of this project led to the taking of this image. "I was a meteorology graduate student at the University of Oklahoma at the time. On this day, our storm chase crew, led by Dr. Howard Bluestein, correctly anticipated the possibility of big storms over west Texas, and we were in the general area when the storms erupted. We were required to drive through the rain and hail core to obtain views of the updraft base, where the action is and where tornadoes sometimes form. We were able to do so without getting hit by a rain-wrapped tornado. I do not recommend this maneuver to the uninitiated, because it can be difficult and very dangerous to those who lack experience."
People in Nature Winner: Sunset over Telendos, Kalymos Island, Greece By Lukasz Warzecha, Edinborough, Scotland (www.lwimages.co.uk) Kalymnos Island, once known as a prime Mediterranean sponge diving spot, is a world-famous sport climbing area with huge limestone overhangs, stalactites, and tower-like limestone formations called tufas. "I had seen images from this vantage point with Telendos Island in the background before, but all had been taken in springtime, with a climber silhouetted by the sunset. The shot I was after would have to be taken in the fall; I wanted the sun to be positioned on the left over the island, making for a more balanced, striking composition. This photograph of my friend Kenichi Ode climbing the strenuous vertical route was taken in October. Normally I take climbing photos while hanging off ropes-but a camera bag, ropes, and the climbing gear necessary to set good anchor points is a lot of equipment to carry with you. Fortunately, Grande Grotto is situated on a hillside overlooking the sea. Therefore it's possible to get good angles from inside the cave. "We decided to spend the whole evening session within the cave, and we were lucky because the whole place was very quiet. At the end of the day, I was satisfied with the many great shots already on my memory card. But I was rewarded once again when Ken decided to climb just before sunset, giving me the shot I wanted."
Zoos & Aquariums Winner: Silverback Western Lowland Gorilla and Baby, Bronx Zoo, New York By Albert J. Valentino, Iselin, N.J. (www.vantagepointimages.com) The largest of all primates, gorillas can weigh more than 500 pounds. These peaceful, family-bound giants feed primarily on leaves, roots, and fruit. The individuals pictured are Western lowland gorillas, a species classified as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. There are three other recognized gorilla subspecies: mountain, eastern lowland, and Cross River gorillas. The Bronx Zoo is the flagship park of the Wildlife Conservation Society, the only conservation group working to safeguard all four subspecies from their primary threats: habitat loss, poachers, and disease. "Primates are some of my favorite zoo subjects. On my frequent visits, I spend hours observing their behavior; however, there are many challenges to choosing the right moment to shoot. Of course, it all begins with planning a visit on overcast days to avoid harsh light. Then, because gorillas are behind thick, often dirty glass, it is important to search for vantage points that are reasonably clean. Plus, I only go when the zoo is not crowded, since reflections in the glass can ruin a shot-late weekday afternoons are best. Also, the grass really is greener on the other side; the grass color is reflected from the glass onto the gorillas' fur, creating a green colorcast. But this is easily corrected: when shooting in raw format, I adjust the white balance and remove the green cast. Last, using a fast lens lets me freeze movement while allowing some background blur, which makes the subject stand out. "What I like about this capture is how junior is 'standing up to dad.' Gorillas are knuckle-walkers and do not walk on two legs, but this baby was doing exactly that."
Olive Baboon, Queen Elizabeth Wildlife Park, Uganda By Michael Kern, Palo Alto, Calif. (www.thegardensofeden.org) "While traveling in Uganda upon entering the Queen Elizabeth Wildlife Park, we were confronted by a family of Baboons (Papio anubis). The intensity of the eyes of the alpha male are shown in this cropped image as he stands between us and his family. The land rover we were traveling in can be seen in the reflection of the Baboon's eyes."
California Poppy, Sinkyone Wilderness, California By Robert knight, Carmel, Calif. (www.robertknightgallery.com) Sixty miles of wild shoreline comprise the "Lost Coast" in northern California. This rugged countryside forced engineers to route the highway many miles inland, which has left the region sparsely settled and unspoiled. Its grand vistas and varied terrain-dense forests, prairies, coastal bluffs, and beaches-reward the hardy explorer. One of the spectacles found there are vast fields of California poppies. This species is said to be a "drought escaper" because it lies dormant as seed for what might be years. When a good rain comes, seeds rapidly take root, suddenly washing the land in a golden hue. "I chose to backpack along the Lost Coast because the remote location is known for its dramatic beauty. On this day, I was hiking along the ocean through rolling hills of wildflowers when a brief sun shower passed overhead. As the gentle rain fell, I moved inland and noticed the petals of the flowers had remained open from the warm spring sun and droplets had begun to form. I positioned the tripod and camera close to the ground and, searching through the macro lens, composed the photograph to include this pair of spring poppies, accentuating the compelling reflections of flower fields in dewdrops between them."