BUGS CAN BE AWESOME
was the only word my 7-year-old grandson uttered when he saw the spectacle.
It was an awesome experience for me as well. Not only to see what we
were seeing but to be where we were when we saw it.
by Nicholas to go out in the swamp at night was one any
self-respecting granddad would have honored. We were planning a weekend
out at our cabin in the woods, so that evening we set out on our great
was at 8:27 p.m., or so he informed me, apparently having gathered the
background information we needed. So by 7 p.m., he had gathered flashlights
and suited up in a pair of childrens chest waders. Nothing like
getting ready on time. I took charge at that point and declared that
I must have a cup of coffee, since it was still daylight. When we started
our trek an hour later, I had put on rubber hip boots. A lingering twilight
filled the sky that gradually darkened as we walked through 2-foot-high
ferns over terrain that varied from lush carpets of emerald green sphagnum
moss to clear pools of foot-deep water. Flashlights were not really
necessary at first, but before long total darkness was upon us. On came
I led the
way, with Nick following a few feet behind. When we came to water, he
held onto my back pocket lest he trip or we hit a deeper pool. We stopped
occasionally to turn off the flashlights and listen to the sounds of
the swamp. Cool, said Nick when we heard the commanding
sounds of two barred owls challenging each other for dominion over that
part of the swamp. We heard a cricket frog, whose call Nick likened
to someone hitting two marbles together. Then we heard a loud chorus
of green tree frogs, their quacking sounds more like ducks than frogs.
I suggested we go find them.
and waded along, shining our flashlights carefully ahead of our path
as I parted vegetation. I was hoping to find a cottonmouth, but with
plenty of time to see it and watch it, not step on it. Once we saw a
watersnake slither into a dark pool and disappear.
reached an area of standing water where we were surrounded by noisy
green tree frogs. None could be seen, but they were all around us. Then
Nick saw one calling from the stem of an aquatic plant. He moved stealthily
and with the skill of a professional grabbed it. We looked it over,
agreed that it was a beautiful animal with its brilliant green back
and white racing stripes down both sides, and released it back on the
plant. It was now late and time to head back.
As we walked
on solid ground along a ridge with swamp on both sides, I proposed that
we stop one more time and turn off our flashlights. This time we heard
the upbeat call of a chuck-wills-widow, a close kin of the whippoorwill.
We paused for a minute more, staring at total blackness all around,
and then it happened. One of the most amazing insect displays imaginable.
Lightning bugs. Hundreds upon hundreds of lightning bugs flashing their
signals. But these were not the random everyday (or night) random glimmers
of backyard lightning bugs we have all seen. These fireflies were flashing
in unison, in total synchrony. One moment the swamp was alight with
twinkling bioluminescence. The next instant the inky black night enveloped
us. Then the fireflies lit up the swamp again.
species of lightning bug (Photinus carolinus) in North America
has this synchronous flashing, and the precise biological explanation
for why they do it remains a mystery. I have seen the phenomenon three
times, each time while in a swamp. You dont have to be a 7-year-old
or a scientist to know that this was indeed an awesome sight.
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