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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Great Smoky Mountains Synchronized Fireflies are here!

Time lapsed photo of Elkmont Fireflies
Once a year a spectacular sight occurs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Beginning in early June and continuing for approximately two weeks the Synchronous Fireflies begin their annual mating ritual. Only discovered in the past fifteen years or so, these fireflies are like no other. The above photograph gives you an idea of the magnitude of the beauty of the light show.  There are many species of fireflies in our area and around the world. These particular ones, Photinus Carolinus, are only found in this area of the Smokies and in Southeast Asia. That in itself is quite miraculous.  As a child in the east Tennessee hills, one of our rights of passage was to get a JFG Mayonnaise jar washed and prepped with a few holes in the lid and wait on nightfall.
Soon the twinkle of one lone Lightning Bug (some people call them fireflies, I call them lightning bugs..) would signal the hunt. We collected them in the stinky jar ( the jars always stunk, no matter how well you washed them) with a few blades of grass, only to find them dead as a door nail the next morning. This always saddened me and maybe this is the root of my lifelong guilt- Judy:  Lightning Bug killer....snuffer of life. But I would try again and again to domesticate the little boogers with no success.
 But back to the Elkmont Synchronized Fireflies.  As i said earlier, they first appear early June and are active for about two weeks. This time frame depends on the weather. Last year they peaked their activity in late May and were completely through the cycle by June, which lead to thousands of disappointed people with tickets to see the show. Yes, I said tickets. The event has become so popular and out of control that the National Park Service had to implement a Firefly viewing program. The only area they appear in is near the Elkmont Campground in the Smokies. You have to walk into the forest located off of of a small road above the campground. When the news of the fireflies hit the presses, thousands of people began to pour into this tiny area. The end result was classically human : trash, noise, alcohol (what's a light show without a buzz), hundreds of cars emitting pollutants, fights, etc...etc.... and of course all these great nature explorers had flash lights, and worse- flash photography. Nothing is as stupid as thinking you can be in total darkness and take a picture of something this delicate and aloof, but by Gawd the tourists think they can. Why is this a problem? Because any light from other sources interfere with the flashing pattern of the firefly and send them into mass confusion. So finally the Park Service (thank God) said "enough". Two years ago, after seeing over seven thousand people try to converge into the small area in ten days, they started a ticket/reservation only process.  Trolleys from Gatlinburg take those with tickets to the area and drop them off. Each person is educated in proper "firefly viewing etiquette", You place red tinted plastic wrap over your flashlights.   You see all this flashing and beautiful activity is about sex. Isn't everything?  They have a two week period to mate and then the males die. I will try to describe it to you, as most will never experience this phenomenon. At about 9:30, you will see them start to move and flash just above the forest floor they increase quickly and at this point they look like every other lightning bug.. no big whoop. But within an hour or so, you realize they are hundreds, if not thousands of them all around you. Soon they start the dance. The males stay in the air, varying in height from a couple of feet to ten feet or so. The females are in the ground cover. Have you ever seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind? This is what it reminds me of, sans the music. They begin a pulsating light show. Kind of like synchronized Christmas Lights, but oh my so much more beautiful. Mother Nature at one of her finest hours, in my opinion.  One group(hundreds) will   flash for about six seconds and go totally black, then the group in another area will flash.
No words can describe it and no camera can capture it fully. Once I saw them cascade above a river in a waterfall pattern from the top of the trees to the bottom. They were reflecting in the water as well.  It was spectacular. I felt like I was in space and stars were flying by my head. Me and my old Park Service buddies try to get together every year or so to enjoy them.  There is another specie, Plausis Reticulata, the Blue Ghost Firefly. Now this is a creature of beauty beyond compare. Again, they are mating and searching for the female in the under growth. The first time I spotted one I was overwhelmed. They do not flash. They stay illuminated and hover over the ground , flying sometimes at head level. When they drop to the forest floor searching for the female, they appear to turn a luminous blue color. If you stand still in the darkness they will literally float above your feet and they appear to fluff out and they look like grapefruit size blue balls of cotton candy. Swear to God i was not on LSD.  The way the light reflects off the ground seems to enlarge their size and makes them hazy in appearance.  It is absolutely the most amazing thing I have ever seen. Many have tried and failed to photograph them , but some things cannot and should not be captured, even on film.  This weekend begins the annual event in the Smokies. If you have not already gotten your golden  ticket it is probably too late. If you are serious and would like to see them in the future, I would recommend you camp anytime the first two weeks of June in Elkmont.All roads to the campground are blocked every night and registered guests only are allowed to enter.  But you cant wait until early spring and think you will get a reservation, you must plan ahead. If you are already in the campground you can just walk to the viewing area and avoid the madness of the Trolley shuttles.