Blowing Smoke for A Prize-Winning Shot

Local Photographer takes Grand Prize Photo in Huntley Meadows Park

By Lisa Mackem

This year’s annual Audubon Photography Awards contest attracted 2,253 entrants from throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kathrin (“Kathy”) Swoboda, of Vienna, VA, won the grand prize for her photo of a Red-winged Blackbird seeming to blow smoke rings. Kathy is an amateur photographer who started photographing birds about seven years ago in her backyard, which is beside a park. Her son created a professional-looking photography website for her, but she has never sold her photographs. Kathy originally did not plan to enter her prize-winning photo in the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards contest. Instead, she posted the picture on the Facebook site “Birds of Eastern US”, where someone suggested that she enter.

Red-winged Blackbird, Kathrin Swoboda/Audubon Photography Awards

Red-winged Blackbird, Kathrin Swoboda/Audubon Photography Awards

Kathy took her picture in Huntley Meadows Park, which she visits every year. She wanted to capture a bird’s backlit breath on a cold, sunny, early spring morning. The park is a 40-minute drive from her home, but “Huntley Meadows is fantastic,” says Kathy. “In the spring and summer, they have lots of birds, birdwatchers, and people taking pictures. The birds are probably tamer there than in other places because they’re used to seeing more people up and down the boardwalks.” Kathy arrived at the park at 7 am on the March morning when she took her winning photo. She slowly walked along the boardwalk, taking pictures of Red-winged Blackbirds. “A particular bird was very vocal – singing hard and long,” said Kathy. She focused on that bird, and for the first time, she saw the smoke rings. She took 26 shots of that bird, continually trying to get a better one. When the sun rose over the trees, Kathy could backlight the blackbird’s breath. The shadow of the woods behind the bird was an effective backdrop.

Initially, Kathy took photos with consumer-grade cameras. As she learned more about photography, she bought her current camera – a Nikon D500 with Nikon 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR lens. She explained that its features, including fast focus and large buffer, are ideal for bird photography, and let her shoot many images without pausing. “You can just keep going and going,” she says. She finds her subject and just lets the camera shoot. The camera took 30 shots for her winning photo. Kathy joined a camera club and entered a club competition to hone her photography skills. She is active on social media and at National Audubon’s request, is doing an Audubon takeover on Instagram. “Watch birds, learn all you can about them,” she says. “Focus on one bird or species and know their nature story. That makes for a better picture.”

A retired physician, married with three grown children, Kathy loves all birds.