Escondido photographer Paulette Donnellon’s humorous image of four juvenile Burrowing Owls at the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge took the grand prize and became the 2023 California Wildlife Photo of the Year. The contest is sponsored by California Watchable Wildlife (CAWW), Sierra Nevada Conservancy and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).

California Watchable Wildlife and California Department of Fish & Wildlife launched the contest to acknowledge photographs that illustrate the state’s diverse wildlife and the viewing experience found throughout its natural and wild lands. For the contest, a panel of judges critiques each photograph based on creativity, technical excellence, overall impact and artistic merit.  Unlike other state-sponsored photo contests, this runs throughout the year with winners announced bi-monthly and featured on social media platforms and the CAWW website. The grand prize is selected in December by CDFW Director Chuck Bonham.

Bonham said he considered each of 17 finalists an outstanding representation of what the state offers. He commended each of the photographers for their exceptional skill seen through a camera lens—from the technical to the artistic. “The opportunity to choose the wildlife photo of the year is one of the perks of my job, even though it’s never easy,” said Director Bonham. “The eyes of the burrowing owl family in Paulette Donnellon’s photo are captivating; it was difficult to peel my own eyes away. The concrete in the shot is also a reminder that nature is all around us and we need to learn to live with wildlife to preserve California’s unmatched biodiversity.”

On February 12, 2023, Paulette joined Senator Brian Jones (D-California Senate 38th District) and Central Subregion Representative Chris Dallas, Sierra Nevada Conservancy in a presentation where she received a Proclamation honoring her photograph and for her skill at capturing that pivotal instant that brings a photograph alive. She also received a pair of Zeiss Conquest HD 8×42 binoculars donated by Out of this World Optics, a two-night stay at Abbey House Inn, and a gift certificate from Chirp Nature Center. Leading up to the announcement, the top winning images from the 2023 contest were part of a week-long social media presentation.

While discovering Burrowing Owls can be a challenge, Paulette’s experience and time in the desert have taught her where to look. Her entrée into photography started as a pandemic hobby in 2020, and she has never looked back.

“They are so amazing to photograph,” said Donnellon, who loves Burrowing Owls so much she can often be found wearing an owl necklace, “Their eyes, they are just full of personality, and I really enjoy photographing them.”

After the legislative recognition, Paulette gifted the photo to Senator Jones to be displayed in his office. The 2023 top finishers also included two winning entries selected by representatives from Sierra Nevada Conservancy (Barking Gray Fox, Susanville, Photographer: Randy Robbins) and Out of This World Optics (Great Blue Heron & Iris, Effie Yeaw Nature Center, Photographer:  Michele Dodge).

Celebrating its 13th year, the California Wildlife Photo of the Year 2024 is officially underway.  For more information on submission guidelines and to view past winners, visit

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California Watchable Wildlife

California Watchable Wildlife (CAWW) celebrates the state’s wildlife and diverse habitats by acknowledging and elevating the value of wildlife viewing to benefit individuals, families, communities, and industries while fostering awareness and support for wildlife and habitats. To that end, CAWW partners with regional agencies to communicate information about their wildlife and nature tourism assets to the viewing and traveling public.


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