Wednesday evening is normally our night to watch Ghost Hunters. This evening, however, we decided to hunt for our own ghosts. Specifically, we were after the elusive Blue Ghost Firefly, Phausis reticulata.
Blue ghost fireflies only glow during mating season, and are only found in isolated areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Both the males and females give off a constant bluish glow, unlike the fireflies in our area, which pulse on a regular basis. The males hover about head-height off of the forest floor, while the pale, wingless females glow along the bottom of the forest. The effect is mesmerizing, as these bluish orbs float through the woods.
The fireflies have a very limited range. They are found in undisturbed forested areas, often in the Smokey Mountains and in Dupont State Forest in North Carolina.
This particular expedition was sponsored by the Furman Outing Club, and was coordinated by Clayton Burton. Despite threatening storms in the forecast, about a dozen of us gathered in front of the Daniel Chapel on campus. There seemed to be an even mix of students and faculty/staff (and their families.) Our small caravan set off, following Clayton.
We drove up to the northern part of Greenville County, up toward River Falls and Jones Gap State Park. I’ll leave the exact location as “undisclosed” because A.) it’s a sensitive area that should be protected, B.) the neighbors were VERY suspicious of our activities, and I don’t want anyone getting shot, and C.) I honestly don’t know exactly where it was. I guess I could pull the data off of my car GPS, but I’ll just refer back to letter A.
We pulled off to the side of the road at a heavily wooded area. An old driveway led off into the woods, and that was our starting point. Almost immediately one of the neighbors drove up and shouted, “Are y’all trespassing?” Clayton assured her that we had permission from the owners. It was obvious that she still didn’t want us there because she tried to warn us off with tales of a mother bear with cubs in the area.
The Blue Ghosts are sensitive to light. Once we dimmed the car lights and flashlights they appeared. We were just a few yards from the road when a multitude of tiny blue orbs began dancing in front of us. They seemed to maintain an even spacing, and rarely intruded into each other’s zone. If a flashlight was lit, or a car came by, the fireflies will stop glowing, but would eventually come back with their continuous blue glow.
It really is hard to describe. I now know where many of the old Appalachian tales of haunted forests and faerie spirits originate. These were strange, and mystical. We all staring for quite awhile, with the fireflies hovering in the woods and just over the old road in front of us, but never really approaching.
These things were impossible to photograph. That doesn’t mean I didn’t give it a valiant effort. I was armed with not only my DSLR, a fast f/1.8 lens and tripod, but I also had a small infrared camera with me. I tried quite a few long exposure shots with the Nikon, hoping at least to capture some dim blue blurs. Stupidly, I had left the lens cap on for most of the shots. On the ones I did take, I got nothing. The insects were just too dim for my camera.
The IR camera did only marginally better. The camera relies on an IR LED light to illuminate the subject, and its range is only about 10 feet. It lit up the woods and the people around with no problem, but just couldn’t capture the elusive bugs like I wanted. I think I might have caught one that flew right in front of the lens…
…of course, it may have been just a moth. Here’s a couple of seconds of video from which that photo was taken…
I also caught a couple of blue dots with the IR camera that may or may not have been fireflies. I’d like to think that they were.
So, capturing the blue ghosts was impossible, and it’s time for a confession. The photo at the top of this post is fake – I added more dots in Photoshop to illustrate what we actually saw. Even so, there is a grain of truth in that photo. I was able to take it and tease out a few more details in Photoshop that do show some actual blue ghosts. Here’s the original image straight from the camera…
…and here’s the image after I tweaked the exposure in Photoshop. You can see a few dots in front of the large tree trunk in the background. You may need to click to enlarge the image.
A few raindrops had already fallen, and lightening was threatening. It was time to move on. As we got back to the cars a deputy sheriff drove up. It seems that the neighbors weren’t satisfied with our explanation for our presence there, and had called about burglars in the area. The deputy was nice enough, but also warned us about the threatening weather.
Back at home I went through my photos and video clips on the large screen on my Mac. I felt a little like the Ghost Hunters as they review their “evidence.” I kept hoping for a glimpse of a firefly in one the video clips. Alas, what I’ve posted here is all I’ve got.
Even so, the experience whetted my appetite. I really don’t want to contend with nosy neighbors (who really were kind and considerate to look after their neighbor’s property), but I’d love to see more of the blue ghosts. I’d like to head up to Dupont State Forest and see if I could find more. However, you almost have to know where they are already. They tend to congregate in such limited areas.
Who knows? If I’m successful catching a decent image of a blue ghost, I may next turn my attention to the Brown Mountain Lights, or perhaps even Bigfoot or Nessie. But for now, I’m just thankful that Clayton and the Furman Outing Club let Laura and me tag along for this wonderful experience.