Spanish photographer Daniel Beltrá captured the scene at a temporary bird-rescue facility in Fort Jackson, Louisiana. The picture "made art out of disaster," judge Mark Carwardine, a zoologist and photographer, said in a statement.
The competition, now in its 47th year, is an "international showcase for the very best nature photography," according to the website for the contest, which is run by London's Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine.
Each year, an international jury of photographers judges tens of thousands of entries in 17 categories.
(See the best wild-animal pictures of 2009, as designated by the Veolia jury.)
Photograph courtesy Daniel Beltrá, VEWPOY
Runner-Up, Animal Portraits: "Trust"
To score this winning picture of a female red fox, German photographer Klaus Echle spent months in Germany's Black Forest.
On the day Echle took the photograph, the vixen stayed beside him for more than two hours. "She was so relaxed that she lay down by my side," Echle said in a statement.
By the start of the mating season, the fox had disappeared, Echle said. "I still miss seeing her.
"I will never forget those very special moments. She came to trust me completely, and that's what I wanted to capture in this picture."
Commented judge Sophie Stafford, editor of BBC Wildlife: "Despite having seen thousands of vulpine photos over the years, I could stare at this atmospheric and intimate shot for hours."
A gaggle of king penguins waddle in driving snow on the U.K. island of South Georgia (map) near Antarctica in this winner in the "Animals in Their Environment" category.
Norwegian photographer Ole Jørgen Liodden took the picture on his fourth trip to Antarctica, so he knew to expect harsh conditions.
As he crouched in the blizzard, "I used a comparatively slow shutter speed to catch the near-horizontal streaks of snow," he said.
Judge Sophie Stafford noted the photograph "has a great sense of place."
"The penguins emerge dramatically from the blizzard into beautiful light that makes their bright colors really glow. A challenging image captured with style."
Photograph courtesy Ole Jørgen Liodden, VEWPOY
Highly Commended: "Gobi Oasis"
A giant mountain of sand dunes reflects into a spring-fed lake in the Alxa Desert Geopark in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.
When Swiss photographer Alessandra Meniconzi climbed the park's highest dune, the scene took her breath away.
"I have never seen scenery like this: thousands of small, wind-moulded dunes sunk into one huge one, the scene doubled in size by the reflection in the lake, so that I felt lost in the middle of a huge ocean of sand," she said.
"The only sounds were the soft whistle of the wind and early-morning birdsong. I felt regenerated."
Judge Colin Finlay commented that the image, an entry in the "Wild Places" category, is "much more interesting than many reflections pictures.
"The colors are slightly disturbing and not too easy on the eye, which lends a subtle power."
Norwegian photographer Aleksander Myklebust spent ten nights inside a hide to get this shot of male black grouse sparring, a winner in the 15-to-17 age group.
Each year near Ringsaker, Norway, the chicken-size birds set up camp in small territories, and each morning put on displays to impress female bystanders.
These two cocks were "yelling" at each other over the snow as they prepared to fight. Myklebust framed the picture to symbolize the birds' sense of territory.
"A funny picture of the apparently empty space between the battling black cocks," said judge and wildlife photographer Anders Geidemark. "Actually a space filled with high tension, respect, fear, and spring hormones."