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Nature Notes: Firefly Fiesta

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 16:55

On Sunday night at 8 o’clock I began watching out of my front window on Noyac Road in anticipation of the firefly show to begin. The first flash down low in the herbage at 8:46 started what would become a barrage of flares, 127 of which I tallied until 9, when I stopped. 

I wasn’t counting individual fireflies, mind you, but the number of flashes in that 30-minute period. For the first 20 minutes all the flashes were less than two feet off the ground, mostly down near the top of the herbage. It wasn’t until 8:49 when one of them looked to be at least five feet above the ground and after that about 20 percent of the 63 flashes that I counted were five feet or higher from the ground. For the first 20 minutes or so, repetitive flashes from one low-down location indicate the work of a single firefly. But once they start flashing while flying here and there, you can’t tell one apart from another.

Depending upon the weather, this somewhat dazzling display will go on night after night from now until the middle of July, when the mating season ends. There were no bats or other insects pursuing the meandering fireflies as far as I could tell. But they have a long list of predators, including bats, other insects, and night flying predacious birds such as those in the nightjar family, nighthawks and such.

It is quite well known by now that fireflies are very scarce on Napeague compared to their numbers in the more thickly wooded areas on the South Fork. I began to hypothesize about the possible causal relationship between the presence of whippoorwills and the absence of fireflies, or vice versa, as suggested by the results of my last six years of observing and counting them in the month of June, when the two species seem to both be peaking.

I went out on Monday night to known whippoorwill areas — the north side of Napeague and Navy Road in Montauk. When I reached the Navy Road end at 8:21 it was still quite light. I spent a good eight minutes observing the grassy sward to the west and the woods to the east and west. The only bit of fauna I saw in 10 minutes of observation was a cottontail that crept out from the wood into the field. It was still much too light for whippoorwills to call, but I thought I might see one or two hunting over the field as they are wont to do in some areas.

I moved south into the woods toward the railroad track and waited. At 8:31 I saw the first firefly flashings, I moved farther south and parked on the east side of Navy Road at the foot of a blocked-off trail. At 8:40 I heard a whippoorwill to the east call four times while that wooded area was abuzz with fireflies flashing on and off, all from low down. It’s hard for a whippoorwill to catch insects in thickly wooded areas and I didn’t see any flying.

At 8:41 I moved back to the Navy Road field as it was still light enough to see, but the only life was a big deer that came out of the wood to the south and began grazing, as well as a catbird, which landed on a post next to my car and then flew into the field to join the deer. I made two more stops before I left Navy Road, one at a grassy area with no fireflies, the other a bit farther south, but on the west side with several fireflies flying and flashing in the wood edge several feet off the ground.

At 8:47 I was heading down Second House Road, then on to Route 27. When I stopped at the Hither Hills overlook, there were fireflies galore at the west edge, well up into the air and flashing frequently. 

I continued on to Napeague Harbor Road, and drove out to the end just west of the Walking Dunes. Guess what? Only a single firefly flash. Was it in response to the flash of the firefly that flew in through my open window while I was at Navy Road and was still carrying on inside the car?

I returned to Napeague, to near the north end of Napeague Meadow Road, where I had heard the whippoorwill call loud and clear several times at 10:22 in the evening on June 11. No whippoorwill call, but a single firefly three feet off the ground on the east side of the road flashing sluggishly where the woods meet the marsh. Is that the first and only firefly on Napeague? It remains to be seen. My hypothesis has been put on hold.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at [email protected].


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