By Chris Jennings
Havre de Grace, Maryland
Born and raised in Havre de Grace, Maryland, the overall winner of this year's photo contest, Brandon Kessler, grew up surrounded by waterfowl and waterfowl hunting traditions. Although Kessler is not from a hunting family, he has hunted with friends on occasion and is a longtime supporter of Ducks Unlimited. Kessler is the owner of Iron Force Fitness, a CrossFit gym in Havre de Grace, and several years ago he branched out into outdoor photography.
Last fall, Kessler, 32, drove with his mother to a section of the Choptank River in Cambridge, Maryland, to photograph short-eared owls. He also hoped to show her the large numbers of American wigeon that were staging along the river.
"As soon as we parked the car, these huge flocks of canvasbacks and wigeon started pouring into the river," Kessler explains. "I immediately grabbed my camera and started shooting. It was amazing to watch these flocks land in the river."
Kessler shot approximately 1,500 images that day, but when he saw this year's winning photo during post-production, he knew he had a keeper. "I loved the color contrast and detail," Kessler says. "It was an overcast day, but the white on the canvasback's breast lit up the image, and the feather detail just popped."
Ironically, when Kessler first took up photography, he didn't have much interest in waterfowl because the birds were so common in his area. But after randomly snapping some photos of ducks one day, he was intrigued by the challenge of capturing the birds in flight. "What really grabbed ahold of me and changed my mind about ducks is being able to freeze those moments when they are coming in to land," Kessler says. "Watching them from a distance and at full speed, it's easy to miss so many movements. The body and head positions, the wings, their eyes, captured in that one single frame gives you a totally different perspective. And, well, they are just beautiful."
Equipment: Canon EOS R5 with a 500 mm lens equipped with a 1.4X extender
Overall Runner-up: Travis Elliot
As the first back-to-back winner in the waterfowl category, Austin Moffett goes the extra mile to get high-quality images of birds in their natural habitat. A self-proclaimed "duck nerd," Moffett, 28, is passionate about waterfowl and being in the outdoors. He captured this flock of redheads on a small marsh along Colorado's Front Range, not far from his home.
"I enjoy shooting pictures, but during duck season I'm typically hunting, so I leave the camera at home," Moffett explains. "But I spend a lot of time shooting photos during the spring migration here in Colorado. That is when we get a larger variety of species—including cinnamon teal, canvasbacks, and redheads—and their plumage is better than in the fall. During hunting season, most of the diving duck species pass through this area pretty quickly."
Moffett prepared to capture this year's winning waterfowl photo by placing a MoMarsh Invisi-Chair in the middle of the marsh and surrounding it with decoys. "I was in about three feet of water. It was a little chilly that day and it was super windy too, which helps with birds decoying," Moffett says. "The sunlight, wind, and the redheads all lined up to make it a perfect day. I probably shot over 1,000 images, but that one was a little different. I saw the flock coming, so I zoomed out to 100 mm to try and get the whole flock in the frame because I already have tons of pictures of single ducks, and it worked out."
Setting decoys and attempting to decoy birds in close—just like on a waterfowl hunt—are all part of the fun for Moffett. "Being able to watch the birds come into the marsh is a way that I extend my waterfowl season," he says. "I try to spend as much time as possible getting photos in the spring. By going out with my camera, my waterfowl season lasts well into April."
Equipment: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with a variable 100–400 mm lens
Waterfowl Hunting Category
SHEALEE ZESCH AND HUNTER PARKER
Shealee Zesch is originally from Boone, Iowa, and currently resides in Holt, Missouri, where she works in real estate and as a freelance photographer. Two years ago, she was introduced to waterfowl hunting by her boyfriend, Hunter Parker, and she has now enthusiastically joined the growing ranks of women waterfowlers.
Zesch, 22, and Parker often travel to hunt together, but on this particular day they found themselves close to home, hunting on an agricultural field for Canada geese. "We were hunting with some good friends and their dog that day," she says. "To be honest, we didn't have a very good season, so that made this hunt so much more special. It was just one of those days that are hard to come by. The numbers of birds we had come into the decoys was amazing."
Zesch bagged her first banded goose during the hunt, and to capture that special moment, Parker picked up Zesch's camera and snapped a photo of her proudly holding up her first band. She says that bagging that banded goose was only one of many unforgettable moments they experienced during that spectacular day afield.
"You don't remember your hands cracking from the cold or freezing your tail off. You remember the memories and the connections with people that come along with it," Zesch says. "I enjoy being able to do this with the people I love."
As if that special morning wasn't memorable enough, when she reported the band, she learned that the goose had been banded in central Iowa, not far from where she grew up.
Equipment: Canon EOS 80D with a 50 mm lens
Waterfowl Hunting Category Runner-up:
PATRICK "BUZZ" HAYES
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Patrick "Buzz" Hayes grew up hunting ducks and geese in the heart of the Atlantic Flyway, from Chesapeake Bay to Currituck Sound. His love of the outdoors led him to a career in photography and design. Hayes is currently in charge of branding and content for the Confluence Group, a public relations and marketing firm representing several companies in the outdoors industry. Hayes, 56, has spent the last two decades shooting photos for various clients across North America, but this year's winning image in the retrievers category is among his favorites.
"The dog in the photo is Spy, a retriever owned by Honey Brake Lodge in Louisiana. She is a very small female black Lab, but she is a real go-getter. It's her small stature that makes the pintail look so huge in the shot," Hayes says. "Plus, it was early in the season—only the second day—and the water was still very shallow. I have millions of pictures of deep-water retrieves, so the low water levels in this photo set it apart. We were all surprised how long the sprig was on that bird."
Hayes explains that even as a full-time photographer, he finds that capturing black Labs in action can be a challenge, especially in low light conditions. "Those dogs are very difficult to shoot pictures of in the field," he laughs. "Spy had good sun on her face, which is the key. She was holding the bird well, which showed honor and respect for the bird. That is important to us. It was pretty much exactly what I was looking for in a retriever shot."
Equipment: Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a 300 mm lens
Retriever category Runner-up: