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National Audubon Society announces its 2016 photography awards winners

Birds of a feather photograph well together -- or at least that's how it appears, when the National Audubon Society announced the winners of its 2016 Photography Awards Thursday. The Grand Prize-winning photo by professional photographer Bonnie Block shows two top-of-the-foodchain predators -- a bald eagle and a great blue heron -- squaring off as they vie for a fish in Seabeck, Washington.

That impressive shot was from one of five photographers who were chosen out of 1,700 competitors who submitted nearly 7,000 photos of birds in the wild. Submissions came from all 50 states and the District of Columbia in addition to six Canadian provinces.

The categories were "Grand Prize," "Professional," "Amateur," "Fine Art," and "Youth" (ages 13-17). For the photographers, professional and amateur, the stakes were pretty high -- the winning photographs are published in "Audubon" magazine, "Nature's Best Photography" magazine, and will be displayed in the 2016 Nature's Best Photography Exhibition at none other than the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The cash prizes were also significant -- as the Grand Prize winner, Block wins a $5,000 prize, while the Professional, Amateur, and Fine Art winners each receive $2,500. The Youth recipient receives five days, all expenses paid, at Maine's Hog Island Audubon Camp in July. The student winner will be treated to photography sessions, accompanied by their parent or guardian at the camp.

Photography project to preserve endangered animals

Wildlife photographer Melissa Groo knows something about the honor that comes from being recognized by the Audubon Society. One of five judges for the contest, she was last year's Grand Prize winner for a photograph of a great egret in the wild and said that the recognition helped further cement her career as someone at the forefront of wildlife photography and education.

She's relatively new to the field -- can you imagine that Groo only started dipping her toes in photography six short years ago in 2010? Groo spoke with CBS News about this year's winners, the importance of nature photography, and her own career. (This conversation has been condensed and edited).

Q: What was your impression of this year's submissions?

A: I think we were all pretty blown away by the quality. I agree with the four other judges on that.

Q: What was the processing like of selecting the winners?

We all gathered together in New York at Audubon's offices to review the photos, and were really impressed with the quality across all of the categories. It's very hard to make the final decision -- really hard to choose something, and then leave something out. We initially looked at every single photograph back at our respective homes separately. We then picked our top photos and all came together. We met in New York City for an entire day -- and we really went over each of our picks, discussed each one.

Q: What makes a winning photograph?

A: There are two kinds of things. One -- is this a stunningly beautiful shot of a bird that really shows off its particular colors and feathers and textures? It might be a really stunning pose, something that provides an interesting, unique take on a very commonly photographed bird. Like my wininng photograph last year, you know, it was of a great egret, which is a very well photographed bird. I guess the judges felt that my portrait of it offered something unique. It gave a unique take on an often-photographed bird. The judges are really looking for fascinating behavior that is captured. That's what's wonderful about photography, it freezes that instance that you can't even see through the naked eye sometimes. Sometimes this behavior happens in a split second, but a photograph captures that unique moment for all of us to see. We're really looking for that unique and interesting shot when judging the submissions.

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"Great Egret," Melissa Groo's Grand Prize-winning photograph from the 2015 Audubon Photography Awards. Melissa Groo/Audubon Photography Awards

Q: Which is exactly what this year's Grand Prize winner is -- I mean, the shot of the eagle and the heron is pretty incredible.

A: Exactly, it's that kind of confrontation, that pivotal moment where the eagle is landing and its wings are completely spread out and you are seeing, obviously, some kind of confrontation -- it's just beautifully captured technically and artistically speaking.

Q: As a nature photographer how significant is it to be named a winner in this contest?

A: It's very rewarding and gratifying. I work very hard as a wildlife and bird photographer, and to have had my artistry recognized and appreciated is really something -- for an artist -- that keeps us going. For me, to see my photo on the cover of Audubon Magazine, I was just really excited to see it. Then to have that photo in conjunction with Nature's Best Photography exhibition -- the country's most prestigious nature photography exhibition, it's just incredible. (Groo's photo is on display until the fall).

Q: Irecently spoke with Michael Muller, who said his new book highlighting sharks in their natural habitat really is, in itself, a work of advocacy for the importance of conservation. Do you see nature and wildlife photography taking on a role that is increasingly more in the line of advocacy for conservation?

A: You know, the whole genre of conservation photography is really growing. It has a sense of purpose to help protect the birds and the other animal life and the landscape in which it all lives. The drive for me is that it's not just enough to take pretty pictures -- more and more people are beginning to think about how they can use their photos for the service of conservation. There's always a place for beautiful pictures. But through contests like this, everyone responds to the photographs and we connect to them. It causes us to care about something, it gets people to care more, and maybe they will be motivated to help conserve birds and their habitats. The Audubon is all about the protection and conservation of birds. It engages people to care about birds.

Q: Has that been a big part of why you photograph wildlife?

A: Personally, conservation is critically important to me. It's about ethics. You're out there photographing wildlife, and it's all about 'How can we be sensitive to our subjects?' There's a growing trend in nature photography where photographers are more aware of the impact we have on the animals we photograph. Kenn Kaufman -- he and I put together the rules to the contest, the ethical guidelines, and people, when they enter their pictures, have to agree to follow the rules. That involves not harassing the birds, or disturbing them, or getting too close to their nests. The Audubon is really being a leader in this way -- it's an important part of the contest.

Q: Was that understanding of the ethics of photographing these animals something you felt was lacking in the nature photography field?

A: Some people are enough aware of the ethics. It comes down to understanding the natural history of your subjects -- what the subject's needs are, what its stresses are. A lot of people go out with a camera and don't know much about their subject.

Q: How did you first get involved with photography?

A: After my child was born in 2005 -- a couple of years later, I took a basic course in digital photography at a local community college. I was at first interested in macro photography of plants, insects, landscapes. In 2010, I discovered bird photography, and I completely and instantly became obsessed. I just did all the research I could to find out how to be a good photographer -- I took workshops, and all I did was think and breathe photography. Now, I've expanded into all wildlife. Bird photography was my first love. I turned pro in the last couple of years and now do a lot of teaching, do a lot of writing. I'm a columnist for Outdoor Photographer magazine, I write for different magazines, give talks.

Q: Wow that was a quick progression. You started in 2010 and then six years later you have work being shown in theSmithsonian!

A: It happened really quickly. The Audubon recognition really helped give me big boost in terms of my visibility, no question. It really helped me in my career.

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