Nature's Witness

National Wildlife’s 2020 Photo Contest Winners

  • Lisa Moore
  • PhotoZone
  • Oct 26, 2020


THROUGH LUCK, PATIENCE, PRACTICE AND PASSION, this year’s photo contest winners reveal a world of wonder. More than 3,200 people submitted nearly 29,800 images, which we judged blind to select our favorites. The photographers of the 17 images we publish here hail from 10 different U.S. states and four nations. All are driven to explore the world—near their own homes or in remote corners—to capture and share its magic. “My goal is to inspire others to go out and find beauty themselves,” says youth winner Edwin Wilke. “That’s how we’ll conserve nature—by getting people passionate about wildlife.”

A crocodile swims through the water in Jardines de la Reina, Cuba.

Alex Rose
Woodridge, Illinois

As its eye catches the gleam of a setting sun, an American crocodile gulps a breath of air before retreating to pass the night in the safety of mangroves within Cuba’s Jardines de la Reina, an archipelago off the southern coast. Covering some 840 square miles, this network of islands, lagoons and mangrove swamps is one of Cuba’s largest protected areas, where fish, corals and crocs thrive. Alex Rose was there with a team documenting sharks to promote their conservation. At day’s end, she went to photograph crocs, a task Rose approached with caution and help from a local guide who had observed the reptiles for years. “These wild animals are so powerful and impressive,” says Rose, who urges people to feel respect rather than fear. Just inches apart, she and the croc drifted in silent harmony until it vanished.

A pair of yellow baboons play on a gnarled camelthorn tree in Zambia.

Rian van Schalkwyk
Windhoek, Namibia

In 2019, while camping in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, Rian van Schalkwyk and his four-year-old daughter, Nina, rose early one morning to explore. They soon spotted these young yellow baboons playing on the gnarled remains of a camelthorn tree. When one found a seed pod, the other scrambled to grab it away. Van Schalkwyk loved the look of “fascination” on Nina’s face as she watched the antics. “They reminded us so much of human children playing,” he says.

An iceberg in Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness in Alaska offers a harbor seal and her pup a safe moment of rest.

Mark Kelley
Juneau, Alaska

Just as his guide boat was pulling away after a long day in Alaska’s remote Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, Mark Kelley saw the shot he had dreamed of for 40 years—a harbor seal mother and pup reflected in still water. Such reflections are rare in the ice-choked waters of this pupping site, says Kelley. Though he only had time to “swing and shoot,” he finally got his wish—and a perfect frame.

A male argus pheasant contorts its wings to frame its eye in a courtship display.

Ron Magill
Miami, Florida

Like a costumed contortionist, a male Argus pheasant curls his ornate feathers into a cone, then peeks through the opening to impress a would-be mate. The elaborate courtship display of this Asian species is “quite rapid,” says Ron Magill, who caught the scene at Zoo Miami, which engages in global conservation. “The male runs around the female in circles, then stops right in front of her and snaps his wings into this painful-looking inverted position for a second or two to see if she’s paying attention.” How could anyone resist such an ardent gaze?

An Anhinga spears a fish with its beak in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Meg Puente
Delray Beach, Florida

While on her morning bird-watching walk through Florida’s Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Meg Puente heard a “commotion” in the water under a bridge and saw the “torpedo” body of this anhinga fishing underwater for breakfast. Suddenly, it “broke to the surface triumphantly,” says Puente, with a skewered tilapia. “I’ve never seen a fish with such expression. It looked so surprised!”

A landscape of the Yellowstone River with mountains and the Milky Way in the background.

Jake Mosher
Bozeman, Montana

“To me, the Milky Way is one of the most beautiful things in the sky,” says astral photographer Jake Mosher. “And if I can frame it over something as beautiful as the Yellowstone River with fog, people will gain a whole new idea of a place they may know during the day but have never seen at night.” For this panorama, Mosher spent two predawn hours in the bitter cold, alone but for the calls of owls and geese. “Despite today’s bad news and division,” he says, “there’s still magic all around us.”

A strike of lighting comes out of a large storm cloud over the Great Plains.

Laura Hedien
Grayslake, Illinois

A self-described “adrenaline junkie,” retired firefighter Laura Hedien has been chasing storms for 15 years across the Great Plains. With friends, she followed this one from Colorado into Kansas, where, toward nightfall, it shot lightning through a swirling “spaceship” of clouds. “This is what we call a shoot ’n scoot,” she says of the chase. “These storms feel alive, morphing as they move. It’s so exciting.”

A lion peers through the carcass of a buffalo in Okavango Delta, Botswana.

Panos Laskarakis
Ioannina, Greece

Life and death meet at dawn on the plains of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, where Panos Laskarakis documented a protracted drama. He watched a pride of lions kill a Cape buffalo and feast until nightfall, when a pack of hyenas moved in to fight for scraps. The next morning, this large male lion returned and peered through the bones, creating a fierce portrait. “I felt the power of the king in my heart,” says Laskarakis.

Two leopards playing with each other in Samburu National Park.

Patricia Hennessy
Albany, New York

Luck graced Patricia Hennessy on the first day of her first trip to Africa. In Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve, she and her guide spotted two leopard brothers frolicking in the brush. Suddenly, they leapt onto a rock, and for just a few seconds, their bodies arched against the African sky, forming a circle of life in motion. “What I came back with will last me a lifetime,” says Hennessy. “There are no words.”

A porcupine climbs a tree at a ski resort in Colorado.

David Terbush
Castle Rock, Colorado

Riding a chairlift at a Colorado ski resort, David Terbush spotted a porcupine climbing down a tree. Hoping for a closer look at this “amazing creature,” he skied down to the site and saw the animal just starting to climb up again. Terbush grabbed his iPhone and caught a few frames, leaving quickly to avoid stressing the porcupine. “We keep pushing animals into smaller spaces,” he says. “These poor little guys are just trying to survive.”

A close up photo of a succulent's leaves.

Zan Davies
Pluckemin, New Jersey

Now living in New Jersey, Zan Davies often returns to her hometown of San Diego, California, where she enjoys morning walks with her 81-year-old aunt. “We both love succulents,” says Davies, who often stops to photograph them. During one early February walk, when she had only her mobile phone, she captured this agave that seemed aglow in perfect light. “Nature is so stunning,” she says. “There’s so much beauty, pattern and color—if you just stop to look.”

A group of green sea turtles rest in the sand as the sun goes down in Maui, Hawaii.

Leighton Lum
Aiea, Hawai’i

After Leighton Lum heard of a tiny cave along a cliff in Maui, he wanted to try to reach it. The trek through the water was tough, and as he approached, he thought the tide had washed in “a bunch of rocks—then the rocks started to move!” As several green sea turtles dozed on the sand, Lum waited to catch the setting sun, swimming home with his gear only after the tide reached his tripod.

A green tree snake catches a leaping gladiator frog's leg in its mouth.

Rona Neri
Waunakee, Wisconsin

Sometimes photographers see things they wish they hadn’t. That was true for frog lover and snake phobic Rona Neri, who, in Costa Rica, documented an “intense” drama as a parrot snake snatched a hapless gladiator tree frog and devoured it whole as the frog frantically struggled to escape. “It was both fascinating and horrifying to watch,” says Neri. “I felt for the frog, but the snake has to live, too.”

A ranger in Kenya's Sera Rhino Sanctuary strokes an orphaned black rhino.

Davis Huber
Los Angeles, California

Dedicating her life to caring for an orphaned black rhino, Ranger Salome Lemalasia offers a tender stroke within the safe confines of Kenya’s Sera Rhino Sanctuary, established in 2015 to protect this critically endangered species. Named Loijipu, this young male was abandoned at birth. “Their bond seemed incredibly loving and trusting,” says Davis Huber. “For me, this image conveys hope.”

A landscape of many people taking in the cliff side view at Pulpit Rock, Norway.

Mary Hall
Black Earth, Wisconsin

Like many visitors to Norway, Mary Hall and her family felt drawn to make the arduous trek to Pulpit Rock, hiking for several hours to reach this remarkable table of stone nearly 2,000 feet above the winding waters of Lysefjord. “I’m not afraid of heights,” says Hall, who dangled her feet over the edge while absorbing the view. Hoping for a different perspective, her family hiked higher still, and Hall made this image from above. “What I love about this shot,” she says, “is how all those people are having fun just enjoying the gorgeous scenery. The rock, the water, the clouds—it was just serene.” 

A white peacock butterfly rests on a plant in Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Edwin Wilke
Lake Worth, Florida

Following a passion for nature photography that began in middle school, Edwin Wilke, at age 17, spent one July day in a Florida refuge hoping to photograph barred owls. No such luck. Feeling “defeated” walking back to his car, he decided to focus on “the little things,” such as a fern in late-day sun. When a white peacock butterfly flew in for a moment, he says, “I was able to capture its beauty. Any wildlife is beautiful to me.”

A northern pygmy owl stares down the camera from a branch in British Columbia, Canada.

Josiah Launstein
Blairmore, Alberta

A tiny northern pygmy owl on a cedar sapling briefly turned its fierce gaze toward photographer Josiah Launstein before darting away to hunt for voles. “It was definitely a special moment,” says Launstein, who was only 11 when he captured this portrait on a cold February day in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley. Learning photography from his father, Launstein, now 15, started shooting when he was only five—and has been at it ever since. “I’ve always loved being out in nature with wildlife,” he says. “I hope photography teaches people to respect the animals.” 

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

See the 2020 Photo Contest Honorable Mentions »
Learn more about the National Wildlife Photo Contest »
"Nature's Witness" virtual photography exhibit »
Read about the 2019 Photo Contest Winners »

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