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2021 Birds in Flight contest finalists

Earlier this year, we conducted our first photo contest focused solely on images of flying birds, the 2021 Birds in Flight contest, here on our website. We received more than 825 entries — images of Bald Eagles, Osprey, Blue Jays, Burrowing Owls, hummingbirds, among others — from hundreds of photographers. Thanks to everyone who entered! The selection of images was outstanding, as all of our previous contests have been. The judges had a challenging task! Today we are proud to present the finalist photos, featured in the following slideshow. 

Each caption tells the story behind the photo, from the photographers themselves, and it lists the camera gear they used. Enjoy! 

Osprey by Mike Dowsett

Osprey by Mike Dowsett

The highlight of my summer photography is the eagerly awaited return of many western Ospreys, who choose to return to nest and breed in the Scottish Highlands after a long warm winter spent on the African coast. I make the long journey each year filled with anticipation accompanied by my photographer friend, Gary Jones. Photographing the Ospreys actively fishing is the most exciting wildlife photography I have experienced, feeling a real rush of adrenalin capturing the birds making the incredibly fast dive into the fish rich waters, then exploding out into frantic flight with a huge trout.

Over many years of technique improvements, I have learned each year and see better images over time. The key areas of technique involve camera focus placement, exposure, and camouflage.

I have strived to perfect my ability to pre-focus on an area of water where I predict the Osprey will hit to save ½ second or so and help give the camera a little more time to focus on the bird. It is crucial to ‘lock on’ to the bird before pressing the shutter; otherwise, the whole burst of images will be out of focus. The bird’s impact through to departure from the water is all over very quickly (maybe 2 or 3 seconds), so it is very important to be ready and to have practiced other birds like ducks and herons before the main attraction. Especially important is to set the exposure correctly. The Osprey has a bright white body and under-wing feathers, making it easy to over-expose and lose the feather detail. Osprey will not fish if they see human presence nearby, so we typically get into place before sunrise and wait in the dark.

This particular image had an additional challenge on the day. Mist can be a real problem in this area, and on this day, it was no exception. The first two Ospreys to dive were completely masked by mist, preventing the camera focusing.

Then at around 5:30 a.m., as the mist cleared and early morning sunlight illuminated the valley, we heard the unique Osprey call from up above as one circled the area looking for an easy catch. This is when my excitement peaks and the nerves start. I pre-focused where I hoped the fish were shoaling and got ready for the dive by double checking the exposure and ensuring the gimbal / camera swing path was clear to track the bird. Then I waited. There was an enormous splash and blur that broke the silence. I swung the camera into position and prayed that the focus locked-on quickly. I then pressed and held the shutter button down for a full burst of RAW images, while tracking the Osprey as it fought to get airborne with a 2-3lb fish and wet feathers. The silence as the bird flew away was then followed by laughter as Gary and I both realized that the warm light was amazing, and we both had several ‘keepers’ on our media cards. We returned to our lodging around 6:30am after the local fishermen scared off the Osprey, to enjoy a hot breakfast to finish our incredible morning spent with the most amazing raptor of all.

Gear and settings: Canon EOS-1DX Mark1, Canon EF300mm f2.8 + Canon 1.4x converter = 420mm focal length. Gitzo carbon tripod with Wimberley Mk 1 Gimbal. 1/3200sec : f/8 : iso800 : manual operation.

Many thanks to our panel of guest judges: author, radio host, and Contributing Editor Laura Erickson; our former photo editor Ernie Mastroianni; Outdoor Photographer Editor Wes Pitts; and Imaging Resource Managing Editor William Brawley. 

Update, Nov. 2: We have now announced the three winners, which will also be featured in our January/February 2022 issue. 

First place

Second place

Third place

Can’t get enough? Here are the 16 honorable mention photos from the Birds in Flight contest!

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