Call it the Year of the Youngster.
For the first time in its five-year history, the Wildlife in North Carolina Photo Competition was won by a teenager. Kaylyn Gruber, a 16-year-old photographer from Belmont, submitted her grand prize-winning black-and-white photo of a brown-headed cowbird chick in the Youth 13-17 category. In Wild Plants, 15-year-old Noah Boyd of Willow Spring was awarded honorable mention for his photo of dew on grass, while Youth 12 & Under saw its youngest honorable mention winner ever, 4-year-old Olivia Jordan Leigh of Pasadena, Md., who entered a picture of Hickory Nut Falls.
In total, 31 award-winning pictures will be on display from Friday, January 8 through Sunday, April 4 at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh. Developed by the Museum and Wildlife in North Carolina (WiNC) magazine, the competition is intended to encourage high-quality nature photography and to identify talented wildlife photographers working in North Carolina.
Gruber captured her winning image at her Gastonia high school, Highland School of Technology, in May 2009. Between classes, a friend spotted the tiny fledgling on a sidewalk and warned Gruber not to step on it. When the chick appeared unable or unwilling to move, Gruber ran to get a camera and took photographs before shooing the bird into the bushes and out of harm’s way.
Gruber was not sure what species the chick was, so competition judges sent her photo to John Gerwin, curator of birds at the Museum, who identified the fledgling as a cowbird that was no more than one or two days out of the nest. He said that chicks of this size can fly despite their lack of a tail, unless they are injured. Their tail feathers develop fully over the course of about three weeks.
Gerwin also explained that the “problem” of brown-headed cowbirds, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in other birds’ nests for them to raise, was created by humans. When we extirpated their precolonial host, the bison, and altered natural landscapes to include a multitude of agricultural lots and lawns, cowbirds expanded from the Great Plains to occupy the newly created grasslands at forest edges. So whether you love or hate the brown-headed cowbird, Gruber’s photo is a great image of a species that survives exceptionally well.
This year’s field totaled 8,802 photographs — the largest number of entries ever. In the competition’s fourth year, 1,889 photographers took part, including 216 junior shutterbugs in the two youth categories. The most popular subject was Birds (1,532 entries), followed closely by the landscape category, Peaks, Valleys and Plains (1,472) and Invertebrates (1,305). Wild Plants received 1,172 entries and Reptiles & Amphibians 868, Animal Behavior 769, Outdoor Recreation 692, Mammals 572, Youth 13-17 227 and Youth 12 & Under 193.
The competition was again sponsored by Great Outdoor Provision Co., with valuable support provided by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, as well as UNC-TV and its broadcast of Nature, the iconic natural history public television program. The exhibition is sponsored by JW Photo of Raleigh.
Judges included WiNC art director Vickie Cumbee; WiNC graphic designers Marsha Tillett and Kristie Rhodes; Mike Dunn, coordinator of teacher education for the Museum; and Charlie Peek, public information officer for Parks and Recreation and a former photojournalist. Details and rules for the 2010 competition will be posted on www.ncwildlife.org  in May, and entries will open on June 1.