Field Notes Update

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?


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.