Enchanting Fireflies at Allegheny

As the summer of 2015 was already in motion, I had been on the hunt for photographic subjects under the dark sky for sometime. This was when I discovered about the synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) in the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and how they happen to show up only for 3 weeks every summer. Half way through the article, I was super-excited and already imagined myself in the Smokys. It was then like the bullet struck my heart; the synchronous firefly sighting for the year was almost over. And even if it hung around for few more days it would be impossible to get a campsite or the park organized tour tickets.

Dejected after missing a chance to date the synchronous fireflies that year,I started my research to prepare myself for the following year. I then stumbled upon this blog that mentions the discovery of the synchronous fireflies in the Allegheny National Park in 2011. Guess what? It was the best time to sight the Photinus Carolinus in the Allegheny Forest.  The bags were packed and so were the camping essentials. Despite all of the preparations, me and my friend Sanket were still uncertain about the availability of campsite. Nevertheless, we still left on a friday afternoon for what would be one of the most fascinating experiences.

Our campsite setup after dark.

We luckily reached on time, got a campsite just before it was dark at the Kellettville campgrounds. After having a quick satisfying dinner we came back only to witness a magnificent view of the fireflies scattered everywhere around us, the melody of Tionesta creek flowing just by the side with the cloud kissed hills in the background. It started to drizzle, a cherry on top of the cake. Undeniably jumping like a kid out of pure joy, my heart was filled with gratitude.The more we explored, the more we got fascinated by the composition and the natural landscape. Towards midnight the mist from the creek limited our visibility to few feet.

Mist all over Tionesta Creek

One hour past midnight, Sanket was already drowsy. After dropping him at the tent I decided to stay around the campsite to enjoy watching the fireflies across the creek, finding their love. The reflections of the lightning bugs on the creek added to the already spellbound moment. It is amazing how our mind works overtime to show the beauty of the nature that no camera can capture.
It was their peak mating season and it is the male fireflies that flashed light from above the ground while patrolling the area to impress their female counterparts. Sure enough, the decision was upto the female; if she wanted to mate with the male she would answer with a flash from the grass or shrubs. However if she swiped him left, she wouldn’t respond to his flash and the male would never find her in the dark.

The Alpha Males at work.[Exposure: 190 sec, ISO1250,F/1.8,35mm]

By now my eyes had gotten used to the darkness of the place. Some of the flares were unusually extended and bright enough to lighten up the grass and shrubs around.It wouldn’t be surprising if they were the first ones to pick up the firefly chicks . I could see a pattern in their bioluminescent flash, but it certainly did not seem synchronous. These fireflies are dubbed as the ‘Chinese Lanterns’, although the documents say that it belongs to species Photuris Versicolor-Complex (very interesting read) scientists aren’t very sure.

Lighting the bush & shrubs

It continued to drizzle all through night. The next day we wanted to explore areas where we could site the synchronous firefly. First thing in the morning,we visited Black Caddis Ranch B&B where it was first discovered. A friendly gentleman named Ken Butler (who along with his wife Peggy Butler organized the PA Firely Festival) responded to us at once and shared a lot of fascinating facts. It was heartwarming to see them spread awareness and selflessly contribute to preserve this natural wonder. He was extremely kind to offer to guide us deep inside his backyard later in the night, where the Photinus Carolinus put up their gig in the melody of the forest (apparently guys from BBC were filming a documentary around the same time). Meanwhile, me and Sanket both realized that we missed out couple of camera accessories. We decided to drive all the way to Erie since we had all the time till night. Also any drive in the beautiful Central Pennsylvania in itself was a treat.

Daytime drive in Allegheny Forest

Tionesta Creek During The Day

Fast forwarding to the night, Ken lead us inside his backyard with a flash light as it was pitch dark. As we walked I was desperately trying to spot the synchronous guys amongst the Chinese Lantern in the open ground. Ken told us that it appeared behind the open space in a more dense area . We reached rear of the backyard and it seemed to me that we walked the length of two soccer fields.It is difficult to predict when exactly they flash in unison, being the longest day of the year and an almost full-moon night, the fireflies were to show up late and we could witness the fireworks for a very limited time. Luckily, despite of the rain and mist they showed up the previous night. After wishing us good luck, Ken took our leave as we continued to wait.

After few minutes of darkness, mild snorts and sound of the creek, Sanket insisted that we ask Ken if it was ok to drive the car all the way till the dense area. He was clearly bothered about any encounter with snake,bears, pumas or coyotes after Ken spoke about an adolescent bear in his backyard few days back (which I comfortably ignored). But at the same time we were convinced that it would be too much to ask for. Meanwhile, I suggested Sanket that he enjoy the view from the open place till the synchronous fireflies showed up. I had promised to make trips to the dense part to check up if the synchronous fireworks started. Right there I realized something very profound; fear is contagious. As I started walking alone towards the dense area, it now seemed much darker and the snorts sounded much louder; seemingly inducing an abstract feeling of being stalked by a territorial animal.  I was super-nervous and the difficult part was hiding it from Sanket.Had I confided fear, it could have been detrimental to the experience. I started humming songs to make a human presence very evident and largely to calm myself.

View from across the creek.

View of the Firefly Island from across the rapid flowing creek. [Exposure: 476 sec, ISO1250,F/1.8,35mm]

After 4 trips to the dense area, we finally saw something that led us speechless.A characteristic flash pattern that illustrated nothing less than nature’s heartbeat, earth never felt so much more alive. A mating display put forth by the male fireflies to attract all the female fireflies to their area. Needless to say, we had goosebumps all over. It was almost as though my heartbeat was in sync with the flash in unison. Fortunately I had placed my camera well ahead of time and wasn’t caught up with the hassle of handling it. There have been times when it was best to keep the camera aside, think nothing but just feel the aura of the place and this was definitely one such moment. They kept us fascinated till midnight and went back to their casual state.

Synchronous fireflies in action. Based on the shades and length of the flares it is easy to distinguish the synchronous ones from the others. Since they flash in unison for a blink of a second, they have short streaks and emit greenish yellow flash. [Exposure: 169 sec, ISO1250,F/1.8,35mm]

As a kid, fireflies were secretly my gateway to seeing a magical world albeit they were never easily seen in places I ever lived. Not surprising, as I never grew up living in places that had less artificial light. These beetles use their bioluminescent prowess not just to attract mates, but to communicate and warn their would-be predators to stay away. You are not alone if you are seeing fewer fireflies every summer. Anecdotal evidence suggests it is most likely due to a combination of light pollution, pesticide use and habitat destruction. Let us make our gardens firefly friendly and give a chance to the future generations to experience the magic.

One of those magical moments with the Chinese Lanterns in Allegheny Forest. [Exposure: 356 sec, ISO1250,F/1.8,35mm]

I hope you enjoyed the post as much as I did reminiscing and writing about the experience. Shall you have any questions or suggestions, drop a comment below. Meanwhile spread the word, share the joy and stay tuned for the future posts and do checkout the gallery: http://www.srikanthsiyer.com/#firefly-enchantment !
p.s: See you with the synchronous guys at Smoky Mountains in the summer of 2016!

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  • Lovely testimony. So glad you were able to experience this phenomenon and appreciate them.

    • Srikanth

      Thank you for making it possible!

  • lakshmi

    breathtaking…!

    • Srikanth Iyer

      Glad that you liked it!

  • Shubha Sadasivan

    The photography is unbelievably splendid! The story behind the pictures is equally fascinating.Great job!

    • Srikanth Iyer

      Thank you so much 🙂

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