For the past few years I’ve subscribed to a web-group by the name of Delhibird, predictably enough a birding list from the Indian city of Delhi. Most of the posts concern, unsurprisingly, birds and bird-related subjects.
But us birders are gregarious folks and earlier this week a post from Nikhil Devasar caught my eye.
Nik, as he calls himself online related a recent night-time wander to catch up with one of my favourite insect genus, the fireflies.
… a special walk last evening – A walk to see fireflies in Delhi. We waited till it just about starting getting dark and started our walk – and within 30 minutes we were surrounded by c300 fireflies – tough to count as you are never sure which one is on and which one is off. Truly magical as we stood there amongst the blinking lights in a city of 18 Million people. Its great to be in Delhi.
Nik’s post was followed by another from Soma Ateesh, who related their own special experience.
It’s magical to watch fireflies. We recently watched hundreds of them near a stream in Rajaji (Wild Brook) and can’t get them out of our heads yet. Would love to come out if there’s another Delhi firefly watching planned sometime in October. Let there be light.
And while I reckon it must be wholly remarkable to be surrounded by fireflies in the absolute busyness of Indian cities like Delhi and Mumbai, I’ve seen fireflies in the NT, but not as far south as Alice Springs where I live now—though this map indicates at least one local sighting.
More often we’d see them—never in large numbers but nonetheless —early in the evening in the Top End north from about Katherine. So, what are fireflies and what are they on about with their burning butts?
This useful post from the University of Melbourne blog Scientific Scribbles provides some useful background for the ill or mis-informed (like me). Fireflies—of which there are 2,000+ species worldwide, are beetles from the family Lampyridae and are found on all continents except for Antarctica. In Australia they are found mainly in forest country and mangroves along the coastlines of the NT, New South Wales and Queensland.
The light is produced by bioluminescence, which, according to the Scientific Scribbles post Lightning Bugs – Nature’s Flash Dancers, is the:
… production of light in a living organism by the chemical reaction chemiluminescence. Fireflies have light-producing organs called lanterns under their abdomen. Lanterns contain photocytes, specialised cells that convert chemical energy into light. Oxygen reacts with the pigment luciferin within the photocytes. The chemical reaction, catalyzed by the enzyme luciferase (a protein that speeds up the rate of the reaction), produces a flash of light.
I could go on… and on. But if you are interested in more information on these fascinating bugs I recommend the excellent information at the Atlas of Living Australia.
I cannot recommend the Atlas highly enough as a starting point for data on just about everything else that walks, flies, flutters and swims in Australia.
Finally, another post from Delhibird reckons that Delhi is not the only city with 18+ million people that gets to share in the “magical, blinking lights,” this is from Bharati Chaturvedi:
Nothing beats the fireflies at this one forest near Mumbai. A small group I know trained the villagers to host visitors and at night the forest throbbed with light-like pulsating glows. If anyone is interested for next year, I can share their details.
But if you live on the Australian east coast you might find fireflies in sheer and glorious abundance close to home.
In this wonderful piece from 2014 in the Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Moir—one of my favourite Australian photographers of the natural and not-so natural world—found himself in an “enchanted wood’ deep in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Nick Moir drove up to the mountains just west of Kurrajong Heights “in search of a spot ‘quietly known’ in certain circles for its glow-worms.”
Around 8pm, Moir was walking through a grove of ferns towards a “tight canyon” where he’d been told the glow-worms would be, when he started to notice blinking lights. “It was weird,” says the photographer. He had seen fireflies overseas so thought that must be what the lights were. “It was either that or ghosts.” “Suddenly hundreds of fireflies were flying around me,” says Moir, who is well known for his bushfire and storm photography. “I was doing time exposures of three to four seconds so I could capture their blinking paths.”
Nick Moir was as impressed by the display in very much the same mystical manner as Nikhil Devasar, Soma Ateesh and Bharati Chaturvedi were continents away:
After Moir had got his firefly shots he continued on to the glow-worm canyon. The fireflies followed him. “Magical – that’s the word I keep on using, it was magical. It was like being around fairies – the forest was glowing.”
You can read about a more recent, and no less mystified, experience from Joel Johnsson from the same part of the world at the We Are Explorers site. I reckon the photos and this description nail the magic pretty well.
You look again – perhaps it was a trick of the light. No, there it is again, a soft glow in the dusky forest. As soon as you see one, more come, floating out of the ferns around you, drifting into your upturned hands. You hold it close up to your face to examine the tiny bug that flashes cold light into your palms. And as it sets off again into the night, you look up to see that the flicker has swelled to a twinkling constellation of living light, all around you.
UPDATE: I’ve just been sent through a link to what looks like a wonderful book—Silent Sparks – The Wondrous World of Fireflies—by evolutionary ecologist Sara Lewis, who earned her PhD at Duke University. She is a Professor of Biology at Tufts University, where she studies the luminous sex lives of fireflies. Author of numerous scientific articles, her research has been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, USA Today, and Wired, and in the National Geographic film, The Science of Summer. You can read more about Sara Lewis and her wonderful work here.
Photo of fireflies in ajar: Greghogan at Reddit.
Map courtesy of the Atlas of Living Australia.