Oiled pelicans photo takes top prize

Birds (© Daniel Beltrá) Still Life in Oil: Canon EOS 5D Mark II + 35mm f1.4 lens at 35mm; 1/30 sec at f4 (-0.7 e/v); ISO 800

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It is a picture that seems at first to be quite beautiful. Only as the eye lingers do you fully realise its shocking context.

This image of brown pelicans smothered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill has earned Daniel Beltra the title of Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPY) 2011.

"They are so afraid, and yet they still seem so elegant," Daniel told BBC News.

WPY is one of the most prestigious competitions in world photography.

Organised by London's Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine, it is now in its 47th year. See more images here.

Daniel Beltra, who hails from Spain, entered an exceptional portfolio of pictures entitled The Price of Oil into the WPY's photojournalist category, which he also won. Most were aerial shots of the Gulf of Mexico slick and the desperate efforts made following the blow-out to clean up the mess; but it is the pelican portrait that stands out.

The birds are seen clustered in a box at a rescue facility in Fort Jackson, Louisiana. At that moment, the animals had just gone through the first stage of cleaning, which involved spraying them with a light oil to break up the heavy crude trapped in their feathers. The resulting smelly, mucky residue dripped from the birds' plumage on to a white sheet.

"The problem with birds is that as soon as they get dirty, they try to clean themselves, which means they swallow a lot of oil. By November 2010, I think they had recovered over 6,000 dead birds," Daniel said.

"There was a closed door on the box. Every so often it would be opened and a bird would be taken out to be cleaned properly. I had a 35mm lens and when that door was opened, I would look in and grab three or four shots. The intent was not to disturb them any more than was necessary."

Judge Rosamund Kidman Cox said the image would make people sit up.

"It is an 'oil painting'," she said. "The colours really make you think you are looking at a painting and then it hits you, what it is you're actually looking at. It has a very strong environmental message; it says everything," she told BBC News.

Pester Power © Mateusz Piesiak

This year's Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year award has gone to Mateusz Piesiak from Poland. His image, entitled Pester Power, shows two oystercatchers squabbling over a morsel of food in the wet coastal sands of Long Island, New York.

The smaller, juvenile bird was trying unsuccessfully to find something to eat. As soon as it saw the adult with a piece of shellfish, it butted in and tried to grab the prize.

Mateusz was so absorbed in his quest to get the perfect picture that he had not noticed the tide coming in behind him. He soon realised when a wave crashed over him. Fortunately, his camera was in a waterproof bag.

As well as the overall "young winner" in WPY, Mateusz' picture claimed the category prize for the 11-14-year-olds.

Rosamund Kidman Cox said: "The composition is perfect and there's something really pleasing about the colours. And there's action there, too - very intimate action. I see a lot of bird pictures and it's just got that interest; no mater how long you look at it, you never tire of it."

The 2011 WPY competition drew another bumper crop of entries - some 40,000 from all over the world. First-time submissions were seen this year from countries as far afield as Cambodia, Moldova, Brunei and Kyrgyzstan.

An exhibition of the best pictures from all 17 categories opens to visitors of the Natural History Museum on Friday. The now traditional tour will then take the pictures out across the UK and abroad.

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