Last weekend, I sat in the Allegheny National Forest in a spot so dark that I couldn’t see my own hand. My birthday is coming up, and this was an early present. Of course, you’re wondering, “You call that a gift?” But, yes, really. It was one of the best gifts. We were there to see the Photinus carolinus, commonly known as the Synchronous Firefly.
The variety was confirmed to live in the forest a few years back, making it only the second verified habitat in North America (the other being in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). Their flash patterns are such that they blink in synchrony. As stated on the PA Firefly Festival website, “The P. carolinus is unique in that its flash patterns are in synchrony with each other, so they appear to be a string of Christmas lights hanging in the forest.”
After spending some time at the festival, my wife and I were directed down a gravel road to a quiet spot in the forest. I felt hopeful (although not convinced) that we would see them. We made our way to a picnic table and sat in the dark. And then, after a few minutes, we witnessed that first string of florescent dots. And then another. And another. Until it was a steady blink-blink-blink-blink. We had front row seats to one of nature’s miracles! The fireflies flickered away, putting on a show in an otherwise pitch dark forest.
Mother Nature Network has written that lightening bugs bring magic to a summer night. Certainly, they do. I think that most of us can recall summer evenings of watching and catching fireflies. But these ones–the P. carolinus–it was a dream to see them, and now I know why.
I’m going to take a moment to manage expectations. What we saw didn’t match some of the photos out there on the web, including the one in this post. The display last weekend was more subtle. They were stunning nonetheless. Their ability to sync (and in just a few places around the globe) is a natural wonder and a testament to possibility. Their timed flashes of brilliance is something worth seeing in life. I know I’m glad that I did.
If you go
- The P. carolinus appears from late June into early July. If you’re reading this ahead of the Fourth, this may very well be the last weekend for this year.
- They tend to be active between 10:30 p.m. and midnight. When we were there, the activity slowed around 11:15.
- There’s a PA Firefly Festival with live music, food, and guided forest and creek walks (the Synchronous Fireflies tend to keep away from bodies of water, so it’s another variety that you’ll find along the creek).
- To take a guided forest walk during the festival, you have to register in advance or be placed on a waiting list. But don’t worry if you don’t get on the list. Event volunteers can direct you to a handful of other spots around Allegheny National Forest. So, like us, you might be watching on your own (we went to the Duhring area outside of Marienville; Buzzard Swamp is another spot).
- You don’t have to go during the festival to enjoy a guided walk. The folks at Black Caddis Ranch B&B offer walks on other dates. If going late in the season, consider calling the ranch to ask whether or not the fireflies are still present.
A little poem about fireflies
We drove six miles down
a narrow road
into a creek valley
so dark and still.
Can’t see a thing other than
stars through the treetops.
I held one in my hand and thought,
“I shouldn’t be touching this.
It’s too special.”
And so I let it go and
we walked back to the car.
I’m popping back into this post to recommend the book World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. I love the subtitle, “In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments”. More so, I really adore the way she writes about the natural world and how she has connected with it from childhood on. She reminds us of the wonder of fireflies and that, unfortunately, there are fewer of them each year. (The next time you apply pesticides to your lawn, consider the impact on fireflies, cicadas, songbirds, and so many other beings.) Nezhukumatathil asks, “Where does one start to take care of these living things amid the dire and daily news of climate change, and reports of another animal or plant vanishing from the planet?” Start small, she tells us. “Start with what we have loved as kids and see where that leads us.” She says the firefly’s luminescence “could very well be the spark that reminds us to make a most necessary turn…toward cherishing this magnificent and wondrous planet.” I certainly hope so.