Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021 – Highly Commended images

Ahead of announcing the winners in October, the organisers of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition have revealed some of this year's Highly Commended images.

Category: Plants and Fungi, Highly Commended. Mushroom magic. © Juergen Freund (Germany/Australia)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year

This year saw a record-breaking number of images being submitted to Wildlife Photographer of the Year, with over 50,000 entries from photographers in 95 countries. Now in its fifth-seventh year, the competition is open to photographers of all ages and levels, and every image is judged anonymously by industry experts.

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“It was the overall quality of entries that took us by surprise. With most travel plans cancelled over the past year, photographers seem to have spent extra time considering what gems to submit,” says Roz Kidman Coz, chair of the judging panel and former BBC Wildlife editor.

“There are stand-out pictures of unforgettable scenes and encounters – those unique wild moments, skillfully framed, that result from knowledge, experience and planning – but also fresh, beautiful observations of nature close to home or in close-up. The result is a collection of both thought-provoking images and ones that, in these dark times, remind us of the joy and wonder to be had from nature.”

The winning images will be revealed on 12 October 2021 in an online Awards show broadcast from the Natural History Museum in London and hosted by conservationists and presenters Chris Packham and Megan McCubbin.

Pick up a copy of the November 2021 issue of BBC Wildlife Magazine, on sale from Thursday 21 October, for a 32-page supplement featuring the winning images.

View the Winning and Highly Commended images from recent years: 

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum, London. The exhibition opens on Friday 15 October 2021 at the museum, before embarking on a UK and international tour.

The fifty-eighth Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition will open for entries on Monday 18 October 2021 and close at 11.30am GMT on Thursday 9 December 2021.

To view the images as a slideshow, click on the arrows in the top right hand corner of the photos below.


Behaviour: Mammals

The great swim, by Buddhilini de Soyza (Sri Lanka/Australia).

Category: Behaviour: Mammals, Highly Commended. The great swim. © Buddhilini de Soyza (Sri Lanka/Australia)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Behaviour: Mammals, Highly Commended. The great swim. © Buddhilini de Soyza (Sri Lanka/Australia)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

When the Tano Bora coalition of male cheetahs leapt into the raging Talek River in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, Dilini feared they would not make it. Unseasonable, relentless rain (possibly linked to the changing climate) had, by January 2020, caused the worst flooding local elders had ever known. Cheetahs are strong (if not keen) swimmers, and with the prospect of more prey on the other side of the river, they were determined. Dilini followed them for hours from the opposite bank as they searched for a crossing point.

Male cheetahs are mostly solitary, but sometimes they stay with their brothers or team up with unrelated males. The Tano Bora (Maasai for ‘magnificent five’) is an unusually large coalition, thought to comprise two pairs of brothers, joined later by a single male. ‘A couple of times the lead cheetah waded into the river, only to turn back,’ says Dilini.

Calmer stretches – perhaps with a greater risk of lurking crocodiles – were spurned. ‘Suddenly, the leader jumped in,’ she says. Three followed, and then finally the fifth. Dilini watched them being swept away by the torrents, faces grimacing. Against her expectations and much to her relief, all five made it. They emerged onto the bank some 100 metres (330 feet) downstream and headed straight off to hunt.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV + 100–400mm f4.5–5.6 lens at 400mm; 1/2000 sec at f5.6; ISO 640.


Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles

The gripping end, by Wei Fu (Thailand).

Category: Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles, Highly Commended. The gripping end. © Wei Fu (Thailand)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles, Highly Commended. The gripping end. © Wei Fu (Thailand)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Clutched in the coils of a golden tree snake, a red-spotted tokay gecko stays clamped onto its attacker’s head in a last attempt at defence. Named for their to‑kay call, tokay geckos are large – up to 40 centimetres (16 inches) long – feisty and have powerful jaws. But they are also a favourite prey of the golden tree snake. This snake, common in the lowland forests of South and Southeast Asia, also hunts lizards, amphibians, birds and even bats, and is one of five snakes that can ‘fly’, expanding its ribs and flattening its body to glide from branch to branch.

Wei was photographing birds at a park near his home in Bangkok, Thailand, when his attention was caught by the loud croaking and hissing warnings of the gecko. It was being approached by the golden tree snake, coiled on a branch above and slowly letting itself down. As the snake struck, injecting its venom, the gecko turned and clamped onto the snake’s upper jaw. Wei watched as they wrestled, but within minutes, the snake had dislodged the gecko, coiled tightly around it and was squeezing it to death. While still hanging from the loop of its tail, the slender snake then began the laborious process of swallowing the gecko whole.

Canon EOS 7 Mark II + Tamron SP 150–600mm f5–6.3 G2 lens; 1/800 sec at f7.1; ISO 1000.


Behaviour: Birds

Up for grabs, by Jack Zhi (USA).

Category: Behaviour: Birds, Highly Commended. Up for grabs. © Jack Zhi (USA)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Behaviour: Birds, Highly Commended. Up for grabs. © Jack Zhi (USA)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

In southern California, USA, a juvenile white-tailed kite reaches to grab a live mouse from the clutches of its hovering father. A more experienced bird would have approached from behind (it’s easier to coordinate a mid-air transfer if you are both moving in the same direction), but this cinnamon streaked youngster had been flying for just two days and still had much to learn. It must master aerial food exchange until it is capable of hunting for itself (typically by hovering, then dropping down to grab mainly small mammals).

Later, it needs to perform aerial courtship rituals (where a male offers prey to a female). To get the shot, Jack had to abandon his tripod, grab his camera and run. The result was the highlight of three years’ work – the action and the conditions came together perfectly. Meanwhile, the fledgling missed but then circled around and seized the mouse.

Sony ILCE-9M2 + 600mm f4 lens + 1.4x teleconverter; 1/2500 sec at f5.6; ISO 500.


Animal Portraits

Storm fox, by Jonny Armstrong (USA). 

Category: Animal Portraits, Highly Commended. Storm fox. © Jonny Armstrong (USA)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Animal Portraits, Highly Commended. Storm fox. © Jonny Armstrong (USA)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

The fox was busy searching in the shallows for salmon carcasses – sockeye salmon that had died after spawning. At the water’s edge, Jonny was lying on his chest, aiming for a low, wide angle. The vixen was one of only two red foxes resident on the tiny island in Karluk Lake, on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, and she was surprisingly bold.

Jonny had followed her over several days, watching her forage for berries, pounce after birds and playfully nip at the heels of a young brown bear. Taking advantage of the window of deepening atmospheric light created by a storm rolling in, he was after a dramatic portrait.

But working with a manual flash, he had to pre set the power for a soft spotlight – just enough to bring out the texture of her coat at relatively close range. Now he was hoping she would come closer. As she did, his companion and fellow researcher raised up the diffused flash for him. It was just enough to pique her curiosity, giving Jonny his atmospheric portrait – studio-style – moments before the deluge of rain.

Canon EOS 7D + 17–55mm f2.8 lens at 17mm; 1/250 sec at f8; ISO 400; Nikon SB 28 flash; radio-triggered Photek Softlighter.

Raw moment, by Lara Jackson (UK).

Category: Animal Portraits, Highly Commended. Raw moment. © Lara Jackson (UK)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Animal Portraits, Highly Commended. Raw moment. © Lara Jackson (UK)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Bright red blood dripped from her muzzle – oxygenated blood, indicating that her wildebeest meal was still alive. Perhaps being inexperienced, this young lioness had not made a clean kill and had begun eating the still struggling animal. Now, with a paw holding it down, she gave Lara an intense stare.

More than two million wildebeest move through the north of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park on their annual migration in search of greener grass, providing the Serengeti lions with a seasonal glut of food. Lara had spotted the lioness just as she pounced. Lions’ primary hunting strategy is stalking, but this one had just been resting in the long grass, when the wildebeest wandered by. “She was already quite full,” says Lara, “probably after feeding the night before, but she grabbed the opportunity for an easy meal.”

Though most successful when hunting with a pride, a single lion can bring down an animal twice its weight. A lion would usually pull it down backwards or sideways and then lunge for the throat or nose, gripping firmly until the victim could no longer cause injury with flailing horns or hooves.

Lying in a specially adapted vehicle, with the sides folded down, Lara framed her low-angle close-up. Her arresting portrait captures the rawness of the moment and the intensity of the lioness’s stare. She didn’t eat much, says Lara, before leaving the kill to walk off with the male whom she had been lying up with, seemingly more interested in mating than feeding.

Canon EOS 750D + Sigma 150–600mm f5–6.3 lens at 283mm; 1/400 sec at f5.6; ISO 500.


Plants and Fungi

Mushroom magic, Juergen Freund (Germany/Australia).

Category: Plants and Fungi, Highly Commended. Mushroom magic. © Juergen Freund (Germany/Australia)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Plants and Fungi, Highly Commended. Mushroom magic. © Juergen Freund (Germany/Australia)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

It was on a summer night, at full moon, after monsoon rain, that Juergen found the ghost fungus, on a dead tree in the rainforest near his home in Queensland, Australia. He needed a torch to keep to the track, but every few metres he would switch it off to scan the dark for the ghostly glow. His reward was this cluster of hand-sized fruiting bodies.

Comparatively few species of fungi are known to make light in this way, through a chemical reaction: luciferin oxidizing in contact with the enzyme luciferase. But why the ghost fungus glows is a mystery. No spore‑dispersing insects seem to be attracted by the light, which is produced constantly and may just be a by-product of the fungi’s metabolism.

Juergen crouched on the forest floor for at least 90 minutes to take eight five minute exposures – to capture the dim glow – at different focal points, which were merged (focus stacked), to create one sharp-focus image of the tree-trunk display.

Nikon D800E + 16mm f2.8 lens; 8 x 300 sec at f5.6; ISO 500; cable remote; ground tripod.


Underwater

Deep feelers, by Laurent Ballesta (France).

Category: Underwater, Highly Commended. Deep feelers. © Laurent Ballesta (France)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Underwater, Highly Commended. Deep feelers. © Laurent Ballesta (France)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

In deep water off the French Mediterranean coast, among cold-water black coral, Laurent came across a surreal sight – a vibrant community of thousands of narwhal shrimps. Their legs weren’t touching, but their exceptionally long, highly mobile outer antennae were. It appeared that each shrimp was in touch with its neighbours and that, potentially, signals were being sent across a far‑reaching network. Research suggests that such contact is central to the shrimps’ social behaviour, in pairing and competition.

In such deep water (78 metres down – 256 feet), Laurent’s air supply included helium (to cut back on nitrogen absorbed), which enabled him to stay at depth longer, stalk the shrimps and compose an image at close quarters. Against the deep-blue of the open water, floating among the feathery black coral (white when living), the translucent narwhal shrimps looked exceptionally beautiful, with their red and white stripes, long orange legs and sweeping antennae. Between a shrimp’s bulbous stalked eyes, flanked by two pairs of antennae, is a beak-like serrated rostrum that extended well beyond its 10-centimetre (4‑inch) bodies.

Narwhal shrimps are normally nocturnal and often burrow in mud or sand or hide among rocks or in caves in the day, which is where Laurent was more used to seeing them. They are also fished commercially. When shrimp-fishing involves bottom‑trawling over such deep-water locations, it destroys the slow‑growing coral forests as well as their communities.

Nikon D5 + 15–30mm f2.8 lens at 30mm; 1/40 sec at f20; ISO 1600; Seacam housing; Seacam strobes.


Urban Wildlife

Natural magnetism, by Jaime Culebras (Spain)

Category: Urban Wildlife, Highly Commended. Natural magnetism. © Jaime Culebras (Spain)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Category: Urban Wildlife, Highly Commended. Natural magnetism. © Jaime Culebras (Spain)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

When Jaime spotted this tarantula hawk wasp dragging a tarantula across his kitchen floor, in Quito, Ecuador, he rushed to get his camera. By the time he got back, the giant wasp – nearly 4 centimetres (11/2 inches) long – was hoisting its victim up the side of the fridge.

Tarantula hawks are said to have among the most painful stings on the planet, deadly when used on a spider. They actually feed on nectar and pollen, but the females also hunt tarantulas as food for their carnivorous larvae. The wasp injects her victim with venom via a sharp, curved sting, then drags it – paralyzed but still alive – to her nest, where she lays a single egg on its body.

When the egg hatches, the larva burrows into the spider’s body and eats it alive, eventually emerging as an adult. Jaime waited for the colourful wasp to level with his fridge magnets, then framed his shot to include this passing addition to his collection.

Sony ILCE-7M3 + 90mm f2.8 lens; 1/100 sec at f16; ISO 250; Yongnuo flash.

Lynx on the threshold, by Sergio Marijuán (Spain).

Category: Urban Wildlife, Highly Commended. Lynx on the threshold. © Sergio Marijuán (Spain)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Category: Urban Wildlife, Highly Commended. Lynx on the threshold. © Sergio Marijuán (Spain)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

A young Iberian lynx pauses in the doorway of the abandoned hayloft where it was raised, on a farm in eastern Sierra Morena, Spain. He will soon be leaving his mother’s territory. Once widespread on the Iberian Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, by 2002 there were fewer than 100 lynx in Spain and none in Portugal.

Their decline was driven by hunting, killing by farmers, habitat loss and loss of prey (they eat mainly rabbits). Thanks to ongoing conservation efforts – reintroduction, rewilding, prey boosting and the creation of natural corridors and tunnels – Iberian lynx have escaped extinction and, though still endangered, are fully protected. Only recently, with numbers increasing, have they begun to take advantage of human environments.

This individual is one of the latest in a family line to emerge from the old hayloft. After months of waiting, Sergio’s carefully-set camera trap finally gave him the picture he wanted.

Canon EOS 6D + 16–35mm f2.8 lens at 22mm; 1/200 sec at f11; ISO 2000; PIR sensor; tripod.


Wetlands – The Bigger Picture

The nurturing wetland, by Rakesh Pulapa (India).

Category: Wetlands – The Bigger Picture. The nurturing wetland. © Rakesh Pulapa (India)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Category: Wetlands – The Bigger Picture, Highly Commended. The nurturing wetland. © Rakesh Pulapa (India)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Houses on the edge of Kakinada city reach the estuary, buffered from the sea by the remains of a mangrove swamp. Development has already destroyed 90% of mangroves – salt-tolerant trees and shrubs – along this eastern coastal area of Andhra Pradesh, India.

But mangroves are now recognized as vital for coastal life, human and non-human. Their roots trap organic matter, providing carbon storage, slow incoming tides, protect communities against storms and create nurseries for numerous fish and other species that fishing communities rely on.

Flying his drone over the area, Rakesh could see the impact of human activities – pollution, plastic waste and mangrove clearance – but this picture seemed to sum up the protective, nurturing girdle that mangroves provide for such storm-prone tropical communities.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro; 1/80 sec at f3.2; ISO 200.


Oceans – The Bigger Picture

Net loss, Audun Rikardsen (Norway).

Category: Oceans – The Bigger Picture, Highly Commended. Net loss. © Audun Rikardsen (Norway)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Oceans – The Bigger Picture, Highly Commended. Net loss. © Audun Rikardsen (Norway)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

In the wake of a fishing boat, a slick of dead and dying herrings covers the surface of the sea off the coast of Norway. The boat had caught too many fish, and when the encircling wall of the purse-seine net was closed and winched up, it broke, releasing tons of crushed and suffocated animals.

Audun was on board a Norwegian coastguard vessel, on a project to satellite‑tag killer whales. The whales follow the migrating herrings and are frequently found alongside fishing boats, where they feed on fish that leak out of the nets. For the Norwegian coastguard – responsible for surveillance of the fishing fleet – the spectacle of carnage and waste was effectively a crime scene.

So Audun’s photographs became the visual evidence in a court case that resulted in a conviction and fine for the owner of the boat. Overfishing is one of the biggest threats to ocean ecosystems, and according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 60% of fisheries today are either ‘fully fished’ or collapsed, and almost 30£ are at their limit (‘overfished’).

Norwegian spring-spawning herring – part of the Atlantic herring population complex – was in the nineteenth century the most commercially fished fish population in the North Atlantic, but by the end of the 1960s, it had been fished almost to extinction. This is regarded as a classic example of how a combination of bad management, little knowledge and greed can have a devastating and sometimes permanent effect, not only on the species itself but on the whole ecosystem.

The Atlantic herring came close to extinction, and it took 20 years and a near‑ban on fishing for the populations to recover, though it is still considered vulnerable to overfishing. The recovery of the herring has been followed by an increase in the numbers of their predators, such as killer whales, but it is a recovery that needs continued monitoring of herring numbers and fisheries, as Audun’s picture shows.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II + 14mm f2.8 lens; 1/320 sec at f13 (-0.33 e/v); ISO 1600.


Photojournalism

A caring hand, by Douglas Gimesy (Australia).

Category: Photojournalism, Highly Commended. A caring hand. © Douglas Gimesy (Australia)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Category: Photojournalism, Highly Commended. A caring hand. © Douglas Gimesy (Australia)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

After a feed of special formula milk, an orphaned grey-headed flying-fox pup lies on a ‘mumma roll’, sucking on a dummy and cradled in the hand of wildlife-carer Bev. She was three weeks old when she was found on the ground in Melbourne, Australia, and taken to a shelter.

Grey‑headed flying-foxes, endemic to eastern Australia, are threatened by heat-stress events and destruction of their forest habitat – where they play a key role in seed dispersal and pollination. They also come into conflict with people, get caught in netting and on barbed wire and electrocuted on power lines.

At eight weeks, the pup will be weaned onto fruit, then flowering eucalyptus. After a few months, she will join a crèche and build up flight fitness, before being moved next to Melbourne’s Yarra Bend bat colony, for eventual release into it.

Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm f1.4 lens; 1/250 sec at f2.8; ISO 125.


Natural Artistry

Toxic design, by Gheorghe Popa (Romania).

Category: Natural Artistry, Highly Commended. Toxic design. © Gheorghe Popa (Romania)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: Natural Artistry, Highly Commended. Toxic design. © Gheorghe Popa (Romania)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

This eye-catching detail of a small river in the Geamana Valley, within Romania’s Apuseni Mountains, took Gheorghe by surprise. Though he had been visiting the region for several years, using his drone to capture images of the valley’s ever‑changing patterns, he had never come across such a striking combination of colours and shapes.

But these designs – perhaps made sharp by recent heavy rain – are the result of an ugly truth. In the late 1970s, more than 400 families living in Geamana were forced to leave to make way for waste flowing from the nearby Rosia Poieni mine – a mine exploiting one of the largest deposits of copper ore and gold in Europe. The picturesque valley became a ‘tailings pond’ filled with an acidic cocktail, containing pyrite (fool’s gold), iron and other heavy metals, laced with cyanide.

These toxic materials have infiltrated the groundwater and threatened waterways more widely. The settlement was gradually engulfed with millions of tons of toxic waste, leaving just the old church tower protruding and the sludge still piling up. His composition – ‘to draw attention to the ecological disaster’ – captures the elemental colours of heavy metals in the river and the ornate radiating banks of this shockingly toxic landscape.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro + Hasselblad L1D-20c + 28mm f2.8 lens; 1/60 sec at f11; ISO 100.


11-14 Years

Apollo landing, by Emelin Dupieux (France).

Category: 11-14 Years, Highly Commended. Apollo landing. © Emelin Dupieux (France)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: 11-14 Years, Highly Commended. Apollo landing. © Emelin Dupieux (France)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

As dusk starts to fall, an Apollo butterfly settles on an oxeye daisy. Emelin had long dreamed of photographing the Apollo, a large mountain butterfly with a wingspan up to 90 millimetres (31/2 inches) and now one of Europe’s threatened butterflies, at risk from the warming climate and extreme weather events.

In summer, on holiday in the Haut-Jura Regional Nature Park, on the French‑Swiss border, Emelin found himself surrounded by alpine meadows full of butterflies, including Apollos. Though slow flyers, the Apollos were constantly on the move. The solution was this roost, in a woodland clearing, where the butterflies were settling. But a breeze meant the daisies were moving. Also the light was fading.

After numerous adjustments of settings and focus, Emelin finally achieved his emblematic image, the whites standing out in stark contrast, and just daubs of colour – the yellow hearts of the daisies and the red eyespots of the Apollo.

Nikon D7500 + Sigma 105mm f2.8 lens; 1/1000 sec at f3.2 (-1.7 e/v); ISO 1000.


10 Years and Under

Lockdown chicks, by Gagana Mendis Wickramasinghe (Sri Lanka).

Category: 10 years and under, Highly Commended. Lockdown chicks. © Gagana Mendis Wickramasinghe (Sri Lanka)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Category: 10 Years and Under, Highly Commended. Lockdown chicks. © Gagana Mendis Wickramasinghe (Sri Lanka)/Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Three rose-ringed parakeet chicks pop their heads out of the nest hole as their father returns with food. Watching was 10‑year-old Gagana, on the balcony of his parents’ bedroom, in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The hole was at eye level with the balcony, in a dead areca-nut palm in the backyard, which his parents had deliberately left standing to attract wildlife.

In the spring of 2020, during the long days of the island-wide lockdown, Gagana and his older brother had hours of entertainment watching the parakeet family and experimenting with their cameras, sharing lenses and a tripod, always mindful that the slightest movement or noise would stop the chicks showing themselves. When incubating the eggs, the female stayed inside while the male foraged (for fruit, berries, nuts and seeds mainly), feeding her by regurgitating food.

When Gagana took this picture, both parents were feeding the growing chicks. Only when they fledged did Gagana realize that there were as many as five chicks. Also known as ring‑necked parakeets, these medium-sized parrots are native to Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan as well as a band of sub‑Saharan Africa, but feral populations are now found in many countries including the UK. These are often found in urban settings, where they sometimes even breed in holes in brick walls.

Canon EOS-1D X Mark II + 300mm f2.8 lens + 2x III extender; 1/800 sec at f7.1; ISO 3200; tripod.

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