Melissa Groo//Audubon Photography Awards
Melissa Groo//Audubon Photography Awards

See All 9 Breathtaking Winners from This Year's Audubon Photography Awards

Melissa Groo//Audubon Photography Awards
Melissa Groo//Audubon Photography Awards

They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and a picture is worth 1,000 words—so it's safe to say the winning shots from the 2015 Audubon Photography Awards are worth a heck of a lot. Six judges—all of them bird experts or renowned nature photographers—critiqued the 9,000 images they received on their technical quality, originality, and artistic merit, and named nine awe-inspiring finalists. The photos they selected will be published in the May-June 2015 issue of Audubon magazine and exhibited at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History beginning October 24. 

Scroll down to see the priceless images captured by this year’s winners.

Grand Prize:

Melissa Groo’s winning image, of a Great Egret fluffing his feathers, was shot in Port Richey, Florida, as night was falling.

Professional Winner:

Pro Chris Gug captured a double-crested cormorant during a dive near La Paz, Baja California Sur in Mexico.

Professional Honorable Mention:

Also a pro photographer, Jason Savage witnessed this dramatic moment between two sandhill cranes in Helena, Montana.

Fine Art Winner:

Constance Mier came upon this scene—featuring a group of laughing gulls, double-crested cormorants, and royal terns—while canoeing in Florida’s Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.

Fine Art Honorable Mention:

Mary Angela Luzader snagged a prize for her image of two purple gallinules.

Amateur Winner:

The bright yellow prothonotary warblers are the only eastern warblers that nest inside tree cavities. Honoree Donald Wuori was able to capture this scene, of a male warbler transferring an insect to his female counterpart, at an Audubon Sanctuary in Harleyville, South Carolina.

Amateur Honorable Mention:

Steve Russell snapped this intimate moment—between an adult flamingo and its young—while visiting the San Diego Zoo.

Amateur Honorable Mention:

Tim Timmis lay down on a sandbar inside the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary (near Port Bolivar, Texas) in order to capture a shot of these black skimmers zooming towards him.

Youth Winner:

It took Zachary Webster thousands of attempts to get the shot he’d been waiting for: this one, of a painted bunting emerging from the water at the Laguna Seca Ranch, near Edinburg, Texas.

Want more? See the judges' Top 100 photographs here. 

All images courtesy of Audubon Magazine's Audubon Photography Awards 

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Crafty Crows Can Build Tools From Memory
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Scientists have discovered yet another reason to never get on a crow's bad side. According to new research reported by Gizmodo, members of at least one crow species can build tools from memory, rather than just copying the behavior of other crows—adding to the long list of impressive skills that set these corvids apart.

For the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, an international team of scientists looked at New Caledonian crows, a species known for its tool usage. New Caledonian crows use sticks to pick grubs out of logs, sometimes stashing these twigs away for later. Tools are so important to their lifestyle that their beaks even evolved to hold them. But how exactly the crows know to use tools—that is, whether the behavior is just an imitation or knowledge passed down through generations—has remained unclear until now.

The researchers set up the experiment by teaching eight crows to drop pieces of paper into a box in exchange for food. The birds eventually learned that they would only be rewarded if they dispensed either large sheets of paper measuring 40-millimeters-by-60 millimeters or smaller sheets that were 15-millimeters-by-25 millimeters. After the crows had adapted and started using sheets of either size, all the paper was taken away from them and replaced with one sheet that was too big for the box.

The crows knew exactly what to do: They ripped up the sheet until it matched one of the two sizes they had used to earn their food before and inserted it into the dispenser. They were able to do this with out looking at the sheets they had used previously, which suggests they had access to a visual memory of the tools. This supports the "mental template matching" theory—a belief among some crow experts that New Caledonian crows can form a mental image of a tool just by watching another crow use it and later recreate the tool on their own, thus passing along the template to other birds including their own offspring.

This is the first time mental template matching has been observed in birds, but anyone familiar with crow intelligence shouldn't be surprised: They've also been known to read traffic lights, recognize faces, nurse grudges, and hold funerals for their dead.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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