The winning entry in the 2019 Audubon photography contest belongs to Kathrin Swoboda of Vienna, Va. She took a photo of a red-winged blackbird blowing “smoke rings” in Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax County. (Kathrin Swoboda)
Columnist

The winning bird entry in the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards wasn’t taken in the jungles of Papua New Guinea or on the cliffs of Iceland. It wasn’t a photo of a bird of paradise or a puffin. It was a picture of a red-winged blackbird, taken at Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax County, Va.

“You don’t have to travel far to capture great images,” said Kathrin Swoboda, the retired Children’s Hospital physician who took the award-winning photo.

And what a photo: A solitary red-winged blackbird perches atop a leafless shrub. He’s backlit in the morning sun, and the warm breath emerging from his beak forms iridescent rings in the chilly air.

Kathrin said she never considered herself a hardcore birder. She started watching birds in her Vienna, Va., backyard and picked up a camera about seven years ago to see if she could freeze the wings of hovering hummingbirds.

“I really wanted to capture the hummingbird in flight,” she said. In the process, she got better and better.

Huntley Meadows is in the Hybla Valley area of Fairfax. A long boardwalk carries visitors over bird-filled marshes. Kathrin visits often and was familiar with how in cold weather a lustily singing red-winged blackbird creates what look like smoke rings with its exhalations.

“It’s definitely a shot I try to take every year in the spring when it’s cold and sunny,” she said.

This particular shot was taken last St. Patrick’s Day. Kathrin arrived about 7 a.m., toting her Nikon D500 camera, 200-500mm telephoto zoom lens and a tripod.

“The marshes attract lots of birds,” she said. “They’re relatively tame because there are a lot of visitors there. It makes it a little easier to get them in my lens.”

As wood ducks cavorted in the water, Kathrin moved along the boardwalk, focusing on different birds. She knew when she tripped the shutter that this image was special.

Kathrin is a member of the Vienna Photographic Society. She’s done well in other nature photography contests. This is the first time she’s taken top honors in Audubon’s.

“I’ve learned so much through photography,” she said.

Seeds of discontent

Speaking of birds, I recently heard from a reader named Ruth. She’s a retiree, in her 80s, living in a garden-style condo complex in Burke, Va. She likes to feed the birds by putting birdseed out in a flat, clay plate on her balcony.

A pair of cardinals visit regularly, as do mourning doves, including one who comes alone.

“This dove apparently lost his mate,” she said. “He comes here every day. And he eats, and then he just sits out there. It’s sort of become a home to him.”

Then a memo went around to all the residents saying bird feeders were not allowed because it was against Virginia law to feed wild animals.

This confused Ruth, who said: “Seems to me all the stores who sell bird and squirrel feeders and food must be against the law also.”

Ruth’s condo regulations stipulate that among items that “shall not be placed on balconies or patios” are “bird feeders, squirrel feeders, food or seed intended for animals.” (Also verboten: antennas and drying laundry.)

Wrote Ruth: “I understand that the association can make any rules they want, but they did cite Virginia law.”

I think they did that so they could shift the blame. The Virginia Code does prohibit the “placement of food, minerals, carrion, trash, or similar substances when it attracts any species of wildlife in such numbers or circumstances to cause property damage, endanger any person or wildlife, or create a public health concern.”

But banning bird feeders?

“Oh my gosh, that wouldn’t go over,” Lee Walker, outreach director at Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, told me.

It seems to me, the key words in that prohibition are “endanger,” “property damage” and “public health concern.”

Lee said feeding birds can lead to unwanted wildlife — seed falls on ground; mice eat seed; snakes eat mice — but the prohibition is really meant to prevent things like bears, coyotes and foxes.

And it turns out that was the problem at Ruth’s complex, which backs up on some woods. Some residents were feeding large amounts of food to foxes. Others were throwing whole loaves of bread to the birds, which was drawing nuisance critters.

Ruth spoke with the management office at her condo and was told that her modest tray of birdseed could stay.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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