The Transylvania Times -

It's Firefly Season: Enjoy Nature's Lightshow Responsibly - Brevard, NC


May 8, 2017

Firefly Season

Do you ever feel like you have lost the enchantment you had for life when you were a child? Do you ever long for proof that you live in a benign and beautiful world where miracles are possible? If the answer to either of those questions is "yes", I have the perfect remedy for you: the incredible forest fireflies of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

We have two species of fireflies that put on a spectacular show in the deep, moist forests of our mountains: the blue ghost (Phausis reticulata) and the synchronous firefly (Photinus carolinus). The blue ghost is a stunning little beauty with a blue-green light that doesn't turn off. That's right, they don't blink. The males glide through the forest with the grace of fairies and search out females hiding on the ground. Even solitary blue ghosts are a sight to see, but when you see hundreds or thousands of them together, you might get dizzy from the effect, and giddy from unexplainable beauty.

Synchronous fireflies are, in some ways, even more spectacular than blue ghosts. Flying as individuals, they are your standard, bright-green, flashing firefly. When they occur in large numbers, they do something remarkable - they flash in unison. Here's how it works. Males flash with six to eight pulses and then go dark for several seconds. In large numbers, a few males start flashing, and then a sort of chain reaction begins and more males join in, all flashing in rhythm with one another, and then going dark. If you find a forest with an open understory that allows a wide-field-of-view, you can watch fireflies pulse in a wave from one side of the forest to the other. In large numbers they will come in repeating crescendos for several hours after sunset and finally get some rest after midnight. As beautiful as synchronous fireflies are, they are even more beautiful when superimposed on the delicate lights of blue ghosts. Seeing both at once is a double treat.

Until recently, these forest luminaries went mostly unnoticed. It turns out that most people don't walk around in the woods after dark with no flashlight, or with a red lense, which allowed the fireflies to remain a little-known secret. Since scientists woke up to what some locals knew for years and documented synchronous fireflies at Elkmont in the Smokies, our fireflies have become famous.

There is now a lottery system to get a campsite at Elkmont, and the craze over blue ghosts at DuPont State Forest has led to the suggestion that some trails be closed to prevent trampling and protect the very spectacle people have come to see. To help ease the pressure on the well-known spots, I'm going to share a secret with you: blue ghosts and synchronous fireflies can be found in nearly every mature, moist forest from Georgia to Pennsylvania.

Beginning about 10 years ago, I started looking for synchronous fireflies and was amazed that they had been hiding in plain sight my whole life. They were everywhere I went in the Smokies. They were in the woods behind my parent's house in Madison County. They are all over Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests. Once I learned to recognize the habitat, I could pull-over and cut the lights while driving forest roads and find them every time. And most places that have synchronous fireflies also have blue ghosts.

Here's what to look for. First, the best habitat for forest fireflies is in moist forests, so focus on coves and north-facing slopes. Next, find places that have an open understory and a dense herbaceous layer. You can see blue ghosts in areas with lots of Rhododendron, but synchronous fireflies do best in rich forests that generally lack evergreens. Finally, find a perspective that allows a wide field-of-view; the farther the better. Fireflies can be found at a range of elevations, arriving first at low elevation and moving up the mountain as the season progresses. Blue ghosts get going in mid-May and last until early July, and synchronous fireflies usually peak in early to mid-June. Fireflies really like moisture, and are particularly active after rains. If you follow these tips you will find great places to see fireflies and escape the crowds. You will find fireflies almost everywhere, but the prime viewing places are the real treasures.

I haven't gone looking for fireflies in Transylvania County, but I've noticed a few spots that I think would be good. I can't guarantee anything, but the habitat in these places looks good for fireflies: Horse Cove on the way up to John Rock, many places along the South Mills River, the rich forests on the North side of Looking Glass Rock, the old road to Upper Courthouse Falls, the upper part of Cove Creek, and many other spots. Basically, think of your favorite wildflower cove, go there at night, turn your flashlight off for a while, and see what you find. If you are successful, you will be rewarded with one of nature's best light shows.

Josh Kelly is a public lands field biologist with MountainTrue, a regional environmental nonprofit organization.


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