Photography has the power to move people – to evoke strong emotions

In only its second year, the BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition has received over 6,000 incredible images of our natural world.

Photographers from 69 countries submitted work to this year's contest, run by the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, US, all hoping to win in their chosen category.

The competition’s organisers hope to highlight photography as a way of celebrating and illustrating the rich diversity of life on Earth, and as a way of inspiring action.

It’s like a painting – moody, evocative, elegant, and simply beautiful

The overall winning image, titled Flying Egrets, was shot by photographer Zsolt Kudich. The picture, taken in the Danube-Drava National Park’s Gemenc Forest in Hungary, captures a moment in time for a flock of more than 1,000 great egrets finding sanctuary at dawn on a dry lake bed that has been temporarily flooded.

Though haunting in appearance, the image highlights a resilient species’ dramatic recovery since the late 19th Century, when the birds' showy breeding feathers were highly sought after by hunters.

“This year’s winning image really grabbed the judges. It’s like a painting – moody, evocative, elegant, and simply beautiful. It’s the kind of image you never tire of looking at,” says Suzi Eszterhas, an award-winning wildlife photographer who chaired the competition’s panel of judges.

"Photography has the power to move people – to evoke strong emotions. And this year’s winning images really make you feel the wonder and awe of the natural world, as well as the urgent need to protect it.”

Winning images from the other seven categories are below.

When a black rhino calf was found lost and dehydrated, it was brought in for rehabilitation at Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve in Zimbabwe. There, anti-poaching scouts are caring for it until it grows older. Illegal hunting of black rhinos for their horns has almost extinguished this African species.

“We can save them, but time is running out and the burden of responsibility is currently carried by few,” says Hilary O'Leary, who captured the image.

Beth Watson spotted this pristine and gorgeously patterned stony coral. It was a perfect photographic backdrop for a subject, if she could find one. Soon enough, a spinyhead blenny obliged.

“It didn’t take long to find this little guy. He was in a convenient location, burrowed in on top of the coral,” says Watson.

Jasper Doest wanted to portray a fuller picture of Japanese macaques than the well-known "jacuzzi bathing" antics these monkeys get up to in Japan's hot springs during winter.

“This image takes me away into the alpine forest, and the eye contact with the monkey increases the empathy for this wonderful species,” says Doest.

In this vast sand sea, a single athel tree appears “as a steadfast symbol of life in impossible conditions”, according to photographer Mark Seabury.

At sunrise, from a hot air balloon, the undulating dunes of Dubai desert almost come alive with motion, reminding Seabury of ocean waves: “In each case the waves are created through the effects of the wind, and the patterns and textures are highlighted through the play of light.”

The bald eagle is one of conservation's success stories, having recovered from near extinction. Three rescued eagles, too badly injured to survive in the wild, were found a home at the Memphis Zoo, Tennessee. During a visit to the aviary, Michael Pachis noticed one of them hopping around near a small pond: “The eagle dunked his entire head in the water and came up shaking it off like a dog would.”

Seventeen-year-old Jenaya Launstein spotted three great horned owls on this weathered granary in southern Alberta, Canada.

“While it was exciting, I didn’t like that they were so close to the turbines because of the devastating effect those have on bird populations every year. I guess owls have to learn how to live with them as wind energy continues to expand,” says Launstein.

The kariba weed has a reputation as a highly invasive plant when it escapes into natural streams. But whilst at an old tea factory in Taoyuan, Taiwan, Yingting Shih saw a treasure within its leaves in an old pond pot, where water drops gleamed like pearls in oyster shells.

“Water is one of the most critical elements on Earth for survival of all beings, so just like pearls, water is precious and should be appreciated.”

Get outside and see the beauty of nature in a new light

In total, 48 works from finalists representing 24 countries will be featured in an exhibit at the Academy’s home in San Francisco from July 31 to November 2.

“Nature photography has the ability to transport viewers to the farthest corners of the world with a single click,” says Dr Meg Lowman, the Academy’s chief of science and sustainability.

“As scientists, we’re fortunate to explore these environments up close, and we hope that this stunning collection of photographs will inspire Academy visitors to get outside and see the beauty of nature in a new light.”

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