Field Notes Update

Don't Overlook Common Species: Mallard Duck by Todd Henson

A lone mallard swimming in the wetlands.

Where I live, and in most of the country, mallards are the most common species of duck. You can see them year round at just about any large enough body of water. When a species is this common it can be easy to overlook. After all, you see it every day. Isn’t it more exciting to go looking for those less common species?

A pair of male mallards. Click on the image to see a larger view, then look closely at the left mallard. It has closed its nictitating membrane over its eye. The mallard to the right has its eyes wide open.

I understand that kind of pull, the desire to find something new, or at least something you don’t see every day. I enjoy that, too. But don’t let that pull blind you to the very common and beautiful species all around you. Mallards may be common, but they are still a beautiful bird, one that’s fascinating to watch and to photograph.

A trio of mallards. The two on the left are males, the one on the right is female. Notice how the head of the far left bird looks darker because of the different angle of light. If it turned into the light its head would look a brighter green.

When the light hits them just right the male’s green head feathers light up. It’s a beautiful metallic green separated from their reddish brown chest by a white stripe. When the light fades a bit the head looks much darker, a deep dark green, almost black.

The backside of a displaying male mallard. This view lets you see their colorful wing stripes.

Mallards also have very colorful wing stripes. When they fly, or display in the water, you can see this blue/purple stripe of color surrounded by black and white stripes. The less colorful females also have these wing stripes, though it’s more difficult to see in these photos.

A male mallard taking flight.

And, of course, we shouldn’t overlook their bright orange feet, something we don’t see as often if we view them while they’re swimming through the water. But once they step out of the water or take flight, those orange feet really stand out.

A male and female mallard taking flight.

Next time you find yourself out photographing birds, be sure to keep your eyes open for those common species. They can also make for great photographic subjects.

Cicada Casing on a Tree by Todd Henson

A cicada casing, or shell, left of a tree.

Many of us have probably heard the sound of cicadas calling to one another. During some seasons the sound can grow to a constant hum. But have you ever seen the casing left behind when a larval cicada molts out of its shell? That’s what this photograph shows.

A cicada had climbed this tree and latched itself onto the bark. Then it began the fascinating process of molting. Inside it detached from its hard shell. It broke through the back of the shell and began to emerge, very soft and vulnerable. Its wings opened and took form. Eventually it flew off leaving behind the casing, or shell, that we see in the photograph above.

YouTube has a video from BBC Studios of Sir David Attenborough describing the life cycle of the cicada:

Red-breasted Merganser Summering in its Winter Range by Todd Henson

A male Red-breasted Merganser sitting on a log looking over its shoulder.

Some birds can be found year round in a location. Others migrate between summer and winter ranges. And sometimes a bird, such as this male Red-breasted Merganser, can be found spending the summer in what is normally their winter range.

Male Red-breasted Merganser preening on a log.

Male Red-breasted Merganser resting on a log.

Red-breasted Merganser typically migrate north during the summer to places like Canada and Alaska. But this male chose to stay in Northern Virginia, spending many mornings sleeping on a fallen log along the shore of a wildlife refuge. Perhaps this male was still too young to breed, so it stayed south where the fishing was good and the temperature warm.

Male Red-breasted Merganser facing the water.

Male Red-breasted Merganser swimming in the bay.

Whatever its reason for staying south, I enjoyed its company and the photographic opportunities it presented.