We all know there is magic in these mountains.
It comes in many forms:
the song of the wood thrush ringing out in the morning light,
the trickle of a stream over water-smoothed rocks,
the glow of a full moon on a pasture.
It is late April and I am sitting on the edge of a mountain forest waiting for some magic to appear.
Between you and me, I am here hoping to see ghosts.
I have seen them before, wandering down this hillside. However, I am not looking for spirit ghosts tonight. I am looking for blue ghost fireflies. Their siren song of light calls me back every spring. I squint my eyes and lean forward. Could it be? I see tiny wandering lights begin their procession down the mountain. The lights never travel in a straight line, but instead in slow, haunting meanders.
My heart leaps. I catch my breath.
No matter how many springs I see this phenomenon, I still get excited. I can only imagine what witchcraftery and fairy tales this sight must have inspired in early settlers to our area.
Many of us have memories of catching fireflies in our front yards. Running around trying to keep up with the flashing, greenish lights, and then a desperate reach out to grasp a moving target just to hold that magical light in our gently closed fists for a moment.
It turns out, there isn’t one universal firefly, but there are many types of fireflies. They come in varying sizes and each species has its own specific flight pattern, flash pattern, and glow. If you start paying attention, an entire firefly universe opens up. And if you really start paying attention, you will notice several species here in our Wild TR.
Blue Ghosts, as their name implies, have a more bluish to white glow. They do not blink, but rather emit a steady stream of light for several long seconds. This gives them their roaming appearance. Unlike our fireflies of childhood, you won’t catch these on a front lawn. Blue ghosts stay low and close to the forest floor like enchanted lanterns hovering. That is because it is only the males who are flying, searching for their lost loves in last fall’s leaves. The females are wingless and come up to the surface of the leaf litter to emit a faint glow, calling in their suitors.
Blue Ghosts range from Western North Carolina and into the foot of our mountainous corner of South Carolina. There were several years that the Blue Ghost firefly was an enigma for me. I thought they only lived in a few secret places.
I first learned about them from an article about Don Lewis, a local Cleveland, SC resident and potter who had noticed them on his property and opened it up to share the wonder. I later learned that Dupont held yearly firefly night walks. I never seemed to find myself at the right place and the right time. Then one day I noticed them in my yard near Jones Gap.
It turns out they are abundant in our South Carolina mountains, you just have to look in the right places.
The Blue Ghosts need established forests with good leaf litter. If you want these fireflies, don’t rake your forest. A lawn or a newly cleared piece of land also won’t do.
If you live in TR, head out to a northern Greenville County forest near you this evening.
Don’t wait much past the first week of May.
Blue ghosts are one of the first fireflies to make their appearance and the show is short-lived.
Find a good sitting place away from streetlights and porch lights. As your eyes become accustomed to the night, listen for the sounds of the barred owls and the whippoorwills. See, the magic has already begun! If you are in the right place at the right time, like mountain haints, the spirits will rise and begin roaming.
Warning: if you also happen to be in a place where the sky is open above you, you may begin to get a little disoriented with constellations of stars above you, the flashing of fireflies in the trees and constellations of ghosts wandering below you. It is truly a magical experience.
Places to look: Anywhere north of the Hwy 11 corridor. Make sure you follow the rules of public lands in our area, many of which have sunrise to sunset hours.
Interested in a unique and up close experience with the blue ghost fairies?
Photographer Bobby Bradley is offering a few dates to see the blue ghost fireflies in the Cradle of Forestry in Pisgah. Groups are limited to six people per date and will include the opportunity to photograph the fireflies with expert advice and guidance from Bobby and other naturalists.