"Mid-air ballet" takes top prize

WWF Staffer named leading wildlife magazine’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year

What does WWF wildlife biologist Christy Williams do when he’s not monitoring wildlife or leading WWF’s Asian Rhino and Elephant conservation program? He watches wildlife of course, and, fortunately for the rest of us, he also photographs what he sees.

This combination of passion and profession recently produced a series of stunning photographs which resulted in Christy being named Sanctuary magazine’s RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland) 2009 Wildlife Photographer of the Year. 

Sanctuary Asia is India's leading wildlife, conservation and environment magazine, which aims to raise awareness among Indians of their amazing, yet threatened, natural heritage. Its annual photography competition is one of the most keenly contested in the world, and produces an incredible standard of wildlife and nature imagery.

Christy’s winning photograph was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a pair of black kites, which he spotted one winter morning last year. Quite amazingly, the kites became embroiled in a mid-flight aerial battle over a large snake which one of them had captured. Quick reactions and a keen eye resulted in a stunning photograph that captured a decisive moment in the battle – which in turn caught the eye of the Sanctuary judging panel.

“I was in northern India looking for birds to photograph one morning last January, and on this particular day had set-out early – at around 4:30 – hoping to capture some good images,” said Christy. “Three hours later, at around 7:30, I was considering packing-up. I still hadn’t seen anything worth getting too excited about, and was considering moving location or possibly even going back home, wondering why on earth I had gotten out of my comfortable bed so early in the morning to tramp around in the cold.

“It was then that I spotted a black kite flying high above me carrying a snake in its talons. Amazingly, a second kite arrived on the scene, and started an incredible display of aerial combat between the two raptors – both of which obviously had dinner plans that involved the hapless snake. I grabbed my camera and squeezed off a number of quick shots, the most eye-catching being a photograph of the two kites just after they had dropped the snake.” This was the award-winning shot.

The award judges said of the shot: “Food has and will always remain a key factor for inter- and intra-species competition. Your image of the mid-air ballet involving two black kites (Milvus migrans) from Guwahati’s Deepor Beel, signifies this beautifully well. The sheer drama of this image showcases both skill and timing.”

Christy said that, in a lucky break, the snake survived the fall to earth and slithered away to safety.

Christy was presented with his award at a ceremony in New Delhi at the end of 2009 and is now back on the job attending to Asian elephant and rhino conservation at WWF.