Look Up: Mud Daubers by Todd Henson

A mud dauber working on her nest.

In a previous post we took a look at one of the creatures you may find nesting on the ceiling of those open shelters you’ll find in many parks, namely paper wasps. Today we’ll look at another species of wasp you may see in these locations: mud daubers.

Whereas paper wasps build nests of a paper-like material they create from plant fibers, mud daubers use mud. There are many different species of mud dauber and each builds a different style nest. I believe the mud dauber in these photos is a black and yellow mud dauber. Unlike paper wasps, these mud daubers are solitary creatures, they don’t build colonies. That’s why you only see a single wasp around this nest.

Mud daubers are solitary parasitic wasps.

After she finishes building the nest, which contains a number of hidden cells, the wasp will begin capturing spiders and paralyze them with her sting. She’ll put several of these paralyzed creatures in each cell within the nest and then lay an egg in the cell. When she’s finished she seals the nest and leaves her eggs behind. The eggs are then on their own, hatching into larvae, which spin a cocoon and enter the pupal stage before finally emerging as adult mud daubers.

After completing her nest the mud dauber will leave her eggs to develop on their own.

Mud daubers tend to be less aggressive than many wasps, but it’s still safer not to antagonize them. Give them space and be happy to observe from a safe distance.

Look Up: Paper Wasps by Todd Henson

Paper wasps are very busy creatures.

After hiking for a couple hours through a park it’s often nice to stop and take break, resting in one of the open wooden shelters found in many parks. When you do, if you look up, you just might see one or more paper wasp nests. Perhaps you’ll even see a nest currently occupied with busy wasps going about raising their next generation.

A paper wasp nest in a corner of the ceiling.

A closer look at paper wasps on their nest.

Another paper wasp nest in the same shelter.

If you look closely at some of the photos (click on them for a larger view) you may see young larvae in the open cells. The queen lays eggs in open cells, which mature into larvae. These larvae will eventually spin a cocoon in the cell, also visible in some of the photos. They will enter the pupal stage in the cocoon, after which they’ll emerge as adult wasps. It’s a fascinating life cycle.

A paper wasp nest with several workers.

Notice the larvae in the open cells. Those in the closed cells have entered the pupal stage.

Be careful if you do find active nests. Though I’ve never had any problems with wasps, they can be very protective of their nests, attacking if they feel threatened. Best to leave them be, and maybe not stand quite as tall as you normally would if the shelter has a low ceiling. Sometimes I’ll just sit in a corner and watch (and photograph) the wasps as they go about their day. Very interesting and social creatures.

A small paper wasp nest, perhaps not as old as the others. All of these nests will be abandoned after their one and only use.

Next time you rest in an open shelter, look up. What do you see?

Osprey Building a Nest on a Windy Day by Todd Henson

Osprey facing the camera on a windy day, with head feathers sticking straight up.

Osprey don’t have it easy. They build nests close to water with no protection from the elements. I’ve seen osprey nests blown over during strong storms. But these amazing birds just keep rebuilding and moving on.

Today’s photos are of an osprey in Colonial Beach, Virginia, building a nest atop some poles just offshore. It’s a very windy day, as you can see in the photo with the osprey facing the camera. The feathers on the back of its head stand straight up with the wind blowing towards me. This really gives the osprey a wild, aggressive look.

Osprey building a nest on a windy day.

I’ve created cropped versions of both photos giving you closer views of the osprey. Click on any of the images for larger views.

Closeup of osprey facing camera, head feathers upright.

Side view of osprey on its nest on a windy day.

Thinking Through the Shots

I wanted to focus as much as possible on the osprey, meaning I wanted the background to disappear in a blur. The distant shore was quite a distance away, which helped. I was shooting at 400mm focal length, which also helped. My maximum aperture was f/8 with the setup I was using. Given the focal length and the distance to the shore, it was enough.

Note, I usually shoot in Aperture Priority mode when background blur is important. This lets me choose the aperture most appropriate for the look I want and lets the shutter speed fall where it well. If I need a faster shutter speed I can then open the aperture further (unless it’s already open all the way) or boost the ISO.

It was a very windy day, so things like the osprey’s feathers were moving. And I wanted to be able to capture the osprey if it flew from the nest. This meant I needed a fast shutter speed. I was shooting with a wide open aperture, which would help give me a faster shutter speed. To increase the shutter speed further I boosted my ISO to 500 (200 is the base ISO for the camera I was using). This let me shoot at a shutter speed of 1/1250 sec.

To sum it all up, I shot at 1/1250 sec, f/8, at ISO 500.


I didn’t have my longer lens with me for this shoot, but I did carry along my 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 2x teleconverter. This is how I reached 400mm. The 2x does slow things down, causing slower focusing, and giving me a maximum aperture of f/8 instead of the f/2.8 of the lens (2 stops slower). But this combo is smaller and lighter than a larger lens, and does give me some versatility, allowing both the 70-200mm and 140-400mm ranges. I was happy with the compromise for this trip.

Note, the 2x teleconverter only works with some lenses, so be sure it works with yours before you purchase it.

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