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12 of the Most Majestic Birds Found in Nature

See birds as you've never seen them before, as wildlife photographer Graeme Green picks 12 of the world’s most remarkable and photogenic birds from his global expeditions.

Graeme GreenAndrea Moreno/Courtesy Graeme Green

The art of photographing birds

There’s no shortage of wonders in wildlife. Lions, elephants, and gorillas might grab attention, but birds come in an incredible variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and behaviors. They’re a challenge to photograph because they’re often shy and fast-moving, on the ground, on trees, or in flight. Over the last 15 years, I’ve photographed birds on wildlife assignments in countries as far apart as Japan and Peru, Mexico, and Tanzania. Here are 12 of my favorites, including a few lesser-celebrated heroes of the avian universe.

Andean CondorCourtesy Graeme Green

Andean Condor

Condors are giants of the bird world, the largest flying bird we have on the planet. They’re considered sacred creatures in Andean cultures. In Peru, they’re referred to as the “apu,” like a god or a messenger between this world and the next. They’re exciting birds to photograph, with wingspans often measuring nearly 12 feet. I took this photo in the Colca Canyon at a spot called Cruz del Condor, where, each day, the condors rise up out of the massive canyon on the early morning thermals.

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Lilac-breasted rollerCourtesy Graeme Green

Lilac-Breasted Roller

The Lilac-Breasted Roller is a vividly colorful bird and the national bird of Kenya. You’ll also find lilac-breasted rollers in Tanzania, in places like Ruaha National Park and Selous Game Reserve. In flight, their colors are iridescent, with the underside of the wing shifting from sky blue to navy to black wing tips. I photographed this one at sunset, resting, watching, the low sun bringing out the soft shades of the feathers: reds, blues, browns and, of course, lilac.

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King penguinsCourtesy Graeme Green

King Penguin

Second only to the Emperor Penguin in size, the Kings have infants that, before they get their adult feathers, look fuzzy and brown, like a different species of bird. The babies waddle around after their parents, badgering them for food. I took this picture at Volunteer Point in The Falklands, or Islas Malvinas as it’s known across most of South America. There’s a tendency with birds to always try to get as close up as possible, but sometimes it pays to zoom out and create a picture with interesting juxtapositions between the wildlife and the landscape. I particularly like how the penguins are, in this photo, facing the approaching storm.

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RheaCourtesy Graeme Green

Rhea

I met Doug Tompkins, conservationist and founder of The North Face company, in Chile a few years ago, and we talked about his conservation projects in Chile and elsewhere in South America, to buy and preserve huge areas of land and gift it back in the form of national parks. Parque Patagonia is one of those national parks. It’s home to the rare Rhea bird, also known as Nandu. One of the aims of Tompkins’ conservation project, which is now run by his wife, Kris, CEO of Patagonia, is to help numbers of Rhea increase in Patagonia. It will be a great thing to see more of these massive, strange birds, distantly related to the ostrich and emu, stalking the wilds of Patagonia.

Eastern Chanting GoshawkCourtesy Graeme Green

Eastern Chanting Goshawk

Tanzania’s little known Ruaha National Park is one of the world’s great, unsung wildlife locations, and a serious birding destination, with more than 570 species of birds, including the endemic Ruaha Hornbill. This Eastern Chanting Goshawk was perched high on a treetop in Ruaha, surveying the landscape. They’re masterful predators, with a strong beak, powerful talons and an unnerving glint in the eye. It isn’t nearly as colorful as, say, the lilac-breasted roller or the Ruaha Hornbill, but that grey and black plumage has a suave, understated quality, like a good suit. 

Red-crowned crane,Courtesy Graeme Green

Red-Crowned Crane

Japan is one of my favorite countries for bird-watching, especially in the Siberia-like winters up in the “wild frontier” of Hokkaido in the north, which is home to Stellar sea eagles, white-tailed sea eagles, whooper swans, and red-crowned cranes. The iconic red-crowned crane—or tancho (meaning “red top”) in Japanese—is actually the official bird of Hokkaido. Previously hunted to near-extinction, numbers are on the rise, but they’re still endangered. They usually mate for life, deciding their partners via a lively, “marriage dance,” performing circles around each other. They look very graceful in flight.

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Albatross pairCourtesy Graeme Green

Black-Browed Albatross

The Falklands isn’t easy to get to, and the wild landscapes seem to get all the weather in one day, blasted by wind, sun, and rain, the conditions changing from minute to minute. It’s also one of the world’s great wildlife destinations, with whales, seals, sea lions, dolphins and more than 200 types of birds. On one of the islands, I spent hours with a colony of black-browed albatross, photographing them as they flew in from the sea or around the cliffs. But this is a favorite shot: a resting pair. They’ve got soft, beautiful features and are one of the species that tend to pick a partner for life.

Grey HeronCourtesy Graeme Green

Grey Heron

The islands off Scotland’s west coast have a diverse array of birds. White-tailed sea eagles, previously extinct in the United Kingdom, have been successfully reintroduced, now nesting in the beautiful Hebridean Islands along with other wildlife, including golden eagles, puffins, greylag geese, seals, dolphins, and whales. They’re joined by Grey Heron, one of which I photographed out at sea, on jagged, rain-battered rocks, surrounded by seals. The herons are famous for their patience; they stand perfectly still in water and wait for a fish to come within range, then pounce with their sharp beak.

Double crested cormorantCourtesy Graeme Green

Double-Crested Cormorant

The Johnny Cash of the bird world, these all-in-black birds have such a sleek look to them. They’re usually found around water, either inland or along the coast, including the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, where I took this photo, and in other parts of North America. Their glinting green eye, I think, is quite striking. These birds have been listed as an Endangered Species but I hear there are plans to allow them to be hunted in parts of the United States.

FlamingoesCourtesy Graeme Green

Lesser Flamingo

During the breeding season, around October and November, Lake Natron in northern Tanzania, near the Kenya border, is covered with more than two million Lesser Flamingo, a lake of pink in the shadow of Lengai, the so-called “Mountain of God.” To get this photo, I walked barefoot and alone through a thick, cold sludge of mud, clay, and material it’s better not to think about to reach the water’s edge. The birds sometimes shift position to other parts of the lake. I wanted to photograph their slim elegant shapes against the soft early morning light.

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Black kiteCourtesy Graeme Green

Black Kite

I like taking portraits of birds that bring out the details in their faces: eyes, beaks, feathers. The Black Kite is a type of common hawk found across Africa, Asia, and Australia. This particular picture was taken in Bandipur, a remote hilltop village in Nepal with old buildings all made from a dark wood. Black Kites are masters at soaring for long periods and are also incredibly agile, able to move swiftly and change direction sharply in mid-air. They’re another bird whose numbers are on a worrying downward trajectory in parts of Asia.

Ocellated TurkeyCourtesy Graeme Green

Ocellated Turkey

“Turkey” seems a bit of a plain name for a bird that looks like a magical, fantasy creature from an ancient myth or a children’s story. Related to the wild turkey, the ocellated turkey has a bright blue and red head and metallic-looking feathers of gold, brown, greens, orange, and black. Sadly, the species is listed as “near threatened.” They’re found mainly in southern Mexico, including the Biosphere Reserve around the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, where they sometimes stubbornly block the road in, as if they’re guardians of the ancient world’s secrets.

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