This is going to be a VERY short but sweet and muddy article for those interested in the Where's, Whys, Whens and Hows of the above photo, 'Mud-rolling Mud-dauber Wasps, winner of the 'Invertebrates: Behaviour' category, Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2018.
This was taken on a hot summer's day (in the morning) near a salt lake in Western Australia's Wheatbelt region, about two hours east of Perth. I was at the last remaining freshwater point in the area. As such, it attracted many species (of insects and birds).
I was actually there to photograph mulga parrots when I noticed the wasps digging out, then carrying off, little balls of mud. It was the most amazing behaviour.
I’m instinctively drawn to the challenge of trying to capture anything that flies, and, when you find an animal that has a distinct flight path, it presents a golden opportunity.
‘So in this case, although I wanted to photograph a mulga parrot, once I saw the wasps' behaviour I knew that this would be a more interesting shot and the mulgas could wait until another day. A beautiful or interesting photo of a common bird or animal is much better than an average or boring photo of a rare one.'
Summer, 2016 at 8.43AM (around 3 hours after sunrise).
Canon EOS 1Dx
Canon 600mm F/4 Lens
Canon 1.4x teleconverter
F8, 1/400 secs, ISO1000
I lay in the mud on the opposite side to get as low as possible. I was in a fairly uncomfortable position, lying down on a steep sloped bank covered in mud. But the challenge of capturing the wasps was exhilarating, and far outweighed the discomfort I experienced.
‘What makes this image a bit different from a traditional insect shot is that I took it with my Canon 600mm F4 prime lens with a 1.4x teleconverter attached. Tracking such a small insect with such a big lens at relatively close range – just over four meters – was extremely difficult. I soon gave that up. Rather, I realised that my best hope was to pre-focus (manually) on an area and try to capture the flying insect coming into the frame.’
I set as narrow an aperture as I could without compromising shutter speed and ISO too much (F8) and then adopted the ‘spray and pray’ method, setting the shooting mode to continuous high speed and hitting the shutter whenever the insect flew close. Very soon, I had filled my card with around 5000 RAW images. In only a few of these was a flying insect in focus and this photo was the only one with both wasps in focus.
About the Wasps
One of the best things to come out of this was meeting the Natural History Museum's Curator of Insects (Dr Broad) who was a fountain of knowledge about these amazing animals and, who, at the opening of the WPOTY exhibition, was able to dust off the museum's specimen collection of Australian wasps and some nests from around the world and present them to an unsuspecting public.
Mud-daubers are remarkable little critters, building nests with the mud that they have mined, but the next part of the story reads like an Alfred Hitchcock movie script. After building their nest, they hunt for, and then stun, a spider by stinging it. They then carry the paralysed spider, shove it into the nest, lay some eggs and then plug up the hole. When the eggs hatch, the larvae have a nice warm, live, meal to start munching on... Lovely!