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16 images that will make you feel 'as free as a bird'

Now in its fourth year, the Bird Photographer of the Year competition received more than 13,500 entries from 63 countries, making 2019 its biggest year yet. Both professional and amateur photographers were encouraged to submit photos in the eight different categories, as well as two additional special awards.

“Winning this competition is getting harder,” said naturalist, TV presenter and head judge Chris Packham of this year’s contest. “And that’s the way it should be because photography is evolving more rapidly than ever: it is visibly edging closer to being able to facilitate perfection. Like life itself it has hardware — the cameras — and software — the information they collect — and we’ve gone from the Neolithic to the Nexus 6 in about 40 years.”

The winning entry, taken by UK’s Caron Steele, is a stunning image of a Dalmatian pelican seemingly “dancing” on top of a frozen Lake Kerkini in Greece. Steele, who only took up photography “seriously” in 2014, shared this wise advice: “In today’s hectic life I think it is vital we strive to save the beautiful natural world around us, as ultimately I believe it will save us. Photography and being at one with nature brings a sense of calm, joy and appreciation that can strip away the stresses of life. I recommend this therapy to everyone. Save your planet and save your soul: pick up a camera and get out there today and be as free as a bird!”

Here are all the winners, and you can check out their award-winning work below along with their description of how the situation unfolded.

Bird Photographer of the Year – Caron Steele, UK

Best Portfolio – Thomas Hinsche, Germany (showing all seven images below)

Birds in the Environment – Mohammad Khorshed, Kuwait

Attention to Detail – Pål Hermansen – Norway

Bird Behaviour – Ivan Sjögren, Sweden

Birds in Flight – Nikunj Patel, United States of America

Garden and Urban Birds – Chad Larsen, Canada

Creative Imagery – Marc Weber, France

Young Bird Photographer of the Year – Tamás Koncz-Bisztricz, Hungary

(new for 2019) Inspirational Encounters – Martin Grace, UK

Best Portfolio (1 of 7)

Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops. Saxony-Anhalt, Germany

“The male Hoopoe feeds its mate while she is brooding her clutch and she is reliant on him while she incubates the eggs. These birds have become new citizens in central Germany in recent years, benefiting from the consequences of climate change. Dry summers help, and many restored military training areas offer new habitats. In mid-May I was able to observe and photograph a wide range of the Hoopoe’s interesting behavioural traits.” – Thomas Hinsche

Best Portfolio (2 of 7)

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula. Saxony-Anhalt, Germany

“A special courtship display ritual reveals this drake Goldeneye in all his glory. He throws his head backwards and pedals his legs to impress the females. The courtship display of these ducks begins early in the year, sometimes even in January. At sunrise I was able to observe and photograph this special moment on a small lake in my homeland.” – Thomas Hinsche

Best Portfolio (3 of 7)

Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo. Kiskunság National Park, Hungary.

“‘Cormorants are one of the most effective and successful hunters in the bird kingdom. Capturing the moment of hunting in an image was a great success for me, and it was at the beginning of the cold month of February that I succeeded in taking this picture. At this time of year the fish are slower because of the cold and the hunting is easier. The prey in this scene was a dwarf Catfish.” – Thomas Hinsche

Best Portfolio (4 of 7)

Common Buzzard Buteo buteo. Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

“It was the first very cold morning of last winter. Ground frost covered the meadows of the floodplain forests and the Buzzards were out hunting mice at sunrise. A wonderfully soft light prevailed on this cold December morning and I was able to photograph this scene while lying hidden in a bush.” – Thomas Hinsche

Best Portfolio (5 of 7)

Black-crowned Night-heron Nycticorax nycticorax. Kiskunság National Park, Hungary.

“This night-heron was hunting at twilight and with the help of several flash lights I was able to take this picture in the failing light. In the warm summer month of June at the Kiskunság National Park in Hungary, waiting for such photo-opportunities is a pleasure rather than a hardship.” – Thomas Hinsche

Best Portfolio (6 of 7)

Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla. Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

“This small woodpecker species migrates every year from its wintering grounds in Africa back to Central Germany to breed. With intricately-patterned plumage, the Wryneck is among the best camouflage-artists going in the bird world and its colours and markings allow it to blend in with its surroundings perfectly.” – Thomas Hinsche

Best Portfolio (7 of 7)

Common Eider Somateria mollissima. Helgoland, Germany

“Often birds do not tolerate a close approach and this prevents impressive photos being taken. On Helgoland, however, the intimate nature of the place and the obliging birds can make for special encounters. Here this splendid drake Eider’s flank feathers have been caught and ruffled by a tailwind.” – Thomas Hinsche

Birds in the Environment – (Gold)

Mixed overhead shot of gulls flying in Kuwait.

“Low tide reveals the beauty of the coastal environment. The intertidal zone is also a good feeding area for seabirds, and so a lot of gulls and herons gather because of the abundance of life. I waited for many days to get the perfect combination of elements for the photo I had in mind: still water at low tide, beautiful clouds and of course the birds. I took this photo using a drone and the magic lasted just a short time before the rising tide altered the scene.” – Mohammad Khorshed

Attention to Detail – (Gold)

closeup of Northern Goshawk - Accipiter gentilis. Trøndelag, Norway.

Relaxed Foot (Photo: Pål Hermansen/Bird Photographer of the Year)

“This mature Goshawk was photographed while it visited a feeding place in the forest. Instead of taking standard images, showing the whole bird, I decided to put on a very long lens and try to pick out details in the feathers. When the feet appeared, I saw the image I had been dreaming of.” – Pål Hermansen

Bird Behavior – (Gold)

Purple-crowned Fairy Heliothryx barroti. Rancho Naturalista, Costa Rica

“Small natural pools deep into the rainforest make a perfect place for hummingbirds to have a quick bath. I was blessed to witness this behaviour in Costa Rica early one morning. The birds hover over the water for a little time and then make small dips beneath the surface. I was able to capture the moment as a Purple-crowned Fairy left the water. The idea of using flash to highlight the rocks on the bottom of the water made the water look golden.” – Ivan Sjögren

Birds in Flight – (Gold)

Black Skimmer Rynchops niger. Ocean City, New Jersey, USA

“Black Skimmers are one of my favourite birds and I love spending time in the summer observing and photographing them. Skimmers have a light and elegant flight, with steady wing beats. They fly low over water and dip their lower mandible just below the surface, feeling for tiny fish and snapping them up with deadly speed, and making high-speed turns in mid-flight. On a nice summer evening, I arrived at a colony of nesting seabirds on a beach to photograph Black Skimmers flying in, bringing fish for the new-born chicks. I decided to set up low on the beach as it would give me an eye-level perspective with the birds. A few skimmers had gathered at the edge of the shoreline and were having a vigorous bathing session. As some of them took off, I saw one flying low and straight towards me. Luckily, I was able to acquire focus, press the shutter and capture a beautiful image of the bird flying straight at me. Black Skimmers rely on open beaches for nesting and raising their young, with direct access to the water for feeding. Coastal development and our own love of the same beaches have left them with few safe places to nest. The image was captured in the summer of 2018 at Ocean City, New Jersey, USA. The Black Skimmer is an endangered species in the state of New Jersey.” – Nikunj Patel

Garden and Urban Birds – (Gold)

Snowy Owl Bubo scandiacus. Saskatchewan, Canada.

“My wife and I had been photographing Snowy Owls for a couple days during the Christmas Holidays in Saskatchewan. On this morning, I returned to the same area and could not believe what I was seeing… an all-white Snowy Owl on a quaint white church! Trying to focus on a white owl set against a very light backdrop proved to be very difficult. However, my biggest challenge was getting into a central position without disturbing this peaceful moment: I knew an opportunity like this might never happen again.” – Chad Larsen

Creative Imagery – (Gold)

Atlantic Puffin Fratercula arctica. Unst, Shetland Isles, Scotland.

“I wanted to convey an environmental message with this image. When we visit colonies of Puffins on their nesting cliffs it is easy to get the impression that they are abundant. But all too soon that may be no more than an illusion, their numbers declining as a result of the actions of man. When working in manual mode it is not easy to get the desired setting. Creating the image required reframing and slight contrast enhancement. The observed effect was created directly within the camera.” – Marc Weber

Young Bird Photographer of the Year – (Gold)

Overhead shot of Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. Hungary.

The Cradle of Life. (Photo: Tamás Koncz-Bisztricz/Bird Photographer of the Year)

“It’s late winter, and Hungary’s soda lakes are full of life, both above and below the surface of the water. These lakes are a sanctuary for a wide variety of water birds including Eurasian Teal, Eurasian Spoonbill, Great Egret, Greylag Goose, Greater White-fronted Goose, Common Black-headed Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Eurasian Coot, Grey Heron, and other birds. There is a nice, but unknown hidden lake between the village of Tömörkény and Pálmonostora. It is surrounded by reeds and sedges and therefore it is impossible to observe and photo the diverse life it harbours without causing disturbance. I took this aerial photograph by a remotely controlled drone which causes almost no disturbance when used properly: the shape, colour and sound of this machine do not correspond to any predator. I used a special technique to slowly approach the birds from very high altitude, the same method used by conservation experts to count the population of the birds for scientific purposes. Here we can see wild Mallards stirring up the muddy water and leaving lines in the water, coloured yellowish-brownish by organic materials. Sometimes you can see a purple tinge to the water, the result of organic matter released from decomposing reeds. The sparkling colour palette of the image in the photograph is also influenced by the blue sky and the reflection of white clouds on the water surface.” – Tamás Koncz-Bisztricz

Inspirational Encounters – (Gold)

Emperor Penguin Aptenodytes forsteri. Snowhill Island, Weddell Sea, Antarctica.

“Emperor. Penguin. Individually words of little distinction, but together an icon of near-mythical proportion. Flightless. The only bird that completely forgoes land. The march. The crazily dedicated parenting. Arguably the most difficult bird in the world to see. But forget for now the travel nightmare, the two days turbulent torture of the ‘never-again’ Drake Passage, the teetering on the edge of will-we, won’t-we? Decades of aspiration are finally approaching a culmination. An unexpected route appears through storm-packed sea ice and Antarctica’s fickle summer opens a calm window of blue. This miraculous conspiracy permits no more than half an hour at the colony, including walking time from landing. Borrowed boots pinch, clothing is stiflingly excessive, frustration also boils as the camera tangles inside the rucksack. But actually having made it is too overwhelming, too emotional. I shoot a few images then put the camera away, and for fifteen minutes it is just me, the Emperors and heaven.” – Martin Grace

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