With thousands of images to consider, the 2010 contest, run in association with Nature's Best Photography, came down to the wire.
At New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, managers plant corn for wintering birds. "They'll come in and eat the seeds. And for whatever reason, they just flush," says Robert Amoruso, a professional photographer. "The images, at least for me creatively, look better if you do them at a slow speed."
Bird Lore: Red-winged blackbirds maintain some individual space in summer, when the males defend nesting territories, but in winter they gather in large flocks. Tens of thousands often roost together in marshes or other sheltered spots.
Amateur, First Place
Photographer: Will J. Sooter
Species: Peregrine Falcon and Willet
Where: La Jolla, CA
Camera: Nikon D300; Nikon 300mm lens with 1.4 extender; 1/1,000 at f/4.5; ISO 200
Will Sooter has been shooting the same pair of peregrine falcons off La Jolla, California, every day for six months in each of the past five years. This day, he says, the female "knocked the willet into the ocean, then tried 30 times to pick it out of the water. But the waves were too big." Finally the stunned willet washed up on the beach, and the peregrine retrieved it.
Bird Lore: Peregrines on the hunt may reach 200 miles per hour. Even so, they are not always successful. They often hunt near aquatic habitats, taking midsized water birds like this willet.
Amateur, Second Place
Photographer: Brian Hansen
Species: Snowy Owl
Where: Near Milwaukee
Camera: Canon EOS-1D Mark III; Canon 500mm lens; 1/5,000 at f/5; ISO 320
"I shot this bird just after it had taken off, probably after its third wingbeat," says Brian Hansen, the general manager of a Kia dealership. Although it appears the owl is looking into the camera lens, "it was totally focused on what it was hunting," he says.
Bird Lore: This owl shows off an intricate wing pattern and an enigmatic expression. The heavy black markings suggest it's a young female.
Amateur, Third Place
Photographer: Laura Stafford
Where: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson
Camera: Nikon D90; Nikon 55-200mm lens; 1/200 at f/4.8; ISO 400
"The Desert Museum is one of my favorite places," says Laura Stafford, a judicial administrative assistant. "This day I was sitting on the patio, and this little guy showed up, not even a foot from me. I got a number of shots, but this was the best one."
Bird Lore: "Desert cardinal" might be a more descriptive name for the pyrrhuloxia. In the Southwest it may live in the same thickets as the familiar northern cardinal.
Youth, First Place
Photographer: Aidan Briggs
Species: Anna's Hummingbird
Where: Templeton, CA
Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Canon 100-400mm lens; 1/1,250 at f/5.6; ISO 320
"I started taking pictures in seventh grade with an old film camera," says Aidan Briggs, now a high school junior. That early interest led him to a workshop in Morro Bay, California, where he met the legendary Arthur Morris, who became a mentor. Briggs later won a scholarship for high school photographers from the North American Nature Photography Association.
Bird Lore: A common Pacific Coast hummer, Anna's hummingbird has expanded its range over the past half-century and is now a regular nesting bird east to Arizona and north to Washington and British Columbia.
Youth, Second Place
Photographer: Ryan Watkins
Species: White-breasted Nuthatch
Where: Clare, MI
Camera: Nikon D200; Nikkor 70-300mm lens; 1/320 at f/8; ISO 500
It took great patience for Ryan Watkins to get this image, taken in his backyard. "I was getting shots of various birds," says the high school junior. "Most of the time just moving the camera to my eye was enough to scare off this nuthatch, but after sitting out there for over two hours, it eventually became accustomed to me and let me get this shot of it."
Bird Lore: No, the picture isn't upside down; the bird is. Nuthatches are famous for their acrobatic climbing abilities, often hanging inverted or walking down trees headfirst.
Youth, Third Place
Photographer: Jess Findlay
Where: Summerland, BC
Camera: Canon EOS 50D; Canon 400mm lens; 1/2,000 at f/8; ISO 400