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Archive for the ‘Smokies Natural History’ Category

Orange Earth Tongue

In a place as biologically diverse as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is always something to attract the eye. Showy species can catch the attention of a trail runner at top speed, but to truly appreciate the full measure of this place, even a slow hiker like me must occasionally set aside a day or two to explore life at leisure and take time to tease interesting tidbits from the ecological fabric of these mountains.  A macro camera lens to capture tiny details brings a multitude of fascinating organisms into sharper focus and helps craft beautiful narratives that might otherwise be overlooked.

Turkey Tails

In the Greenbrier area, there are two unofficial trails tailor made for macro exploration. Injun Creek, adjacent to the ranger station, does not appear on the trail maps but is well used and seems to be reasonably maintained. It heads southwest and ties into the Grapeyard Ridge Trail. Mary suggests another unmarked trail that runs past the Plemmons Cemetery on the far side of Porters Creek, tracking above the creek and some of its tributaries flowing through the valley below.  I spend two days happily piddling along sections of these trails.

Pinesap

Just past the bridges to Ramsey Cascades, there is a chained gravel road leading up to the cemetery.  A short distance up this road is a side trail that veers off to the right, but it is best, at least for the first visit, to follow the road. It narrows to a path and climbs steadily to a fairly large, flat expanse of land once known as the Greenbrier Cemetery. It is a lovely and peaceful resting place for many members of the Whaley, Bohanan, Mayes, Ogle, Ownby, and Rayfield families among others, but no Plemmons.  According to a relative of these Greenbrier families, Plemmons was a preacher who donated land to enlarge the cemetery just prior to the park’s establishment. Park officials named it after him.

Aunt Sally's grave is lovingly tended.

The Whaley name has been prominent in the Greenbrier community from the very beginning in the early 1800s.  Aaron Whaley and his wife Sarah Ownby are interred in the cemetery’s front right corner.  Sarah, lovingly known as Aunt Sally, lived nearly a century, and her grave is beautifully tended with bunches of colorful artificial flowers. Nature lends a hand too, planting a Southern Grape Fern among the bright bouquets, something I suspect Aunt Sally would really appreciate.

At the front left corner, a clear path descends from the cemetery to that side trail noted earlier.  For a short loop, turn right and head back to the gravel road.  For a quiet walk in the woods, turn left and saunter to your heart’s content. There are frequent flat areas to the left of the trail where some settlement activities (farming, etc.) must have taken place as evidenced by rock walls. The second day I walk at least a mile or more to a small stream crossing before turning around.

Script Lichen with a leafy liverwort.

I am looking for cool mushrooms but am ready for anything of interest. It is very dry which isn’t an optimal condition for fungi.  The pickin’s are a bit slim, yet worthy specimens are found.  I must acknowledge I’ve had no instruction in fungi identification.  It’s just me with a field guide and a textbook.  Therefore, it would be prudent to declare these as my best guesses.  Orange Earth Tongue (Microglossum rufum), Black Velvet Earth Tongue (Trichoglossum hirsutum), Fluted Bird’s Nest (Cyanthus striatus), Turkey Tails (Trametes versicolor), Orange and Yellow Spindle Corals, Puffballs (I can’t tell if they are older Gem-studded (Lycoperdon sp.) or fresh Poison Pigskin (Scleroderma sp.), and Rough Hydnellum (Hydnellum scrobiculatum), a tooth fungus, are found. The Rough Hyndellum looks like a tempting confection from Hostess or Little Debbie – white icing rimming a chocolate center!  There is a tiny branched fungus, perhaps related to the genus Xylaria, growing on fallen tree leaves. While photographing a mushroom, I notice the bright red and yellow stems of emerging Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys) among Red Oak trees.  Script Lichen (Graphis scripta) and the leafy liverwort (Leucolejeunea sp.) decorate a tree trunk.  I even find a fresh deposit of Wild Turkey scat.

Rough Hydnellum

The most exciting find though is the easiest to spot. All along the trail and around the cemetery are small, multi-stemmed plants with tubular white buds. They are Triphora trianthophora, Three Birds Orchid.  Threatening weather brings a rapid end to day one along with a brief shower and slightly cooler temps. I’m determined to return in hopes a couple of these buds might be ready to open.  What a difference a day makes. The following morning, the sun is shining and every orchid plant is graced with fully open flowers just begging for a closeup.

The "teeth" under Rough Hydnellum.

Three Birds Orchid in bud August 8.

Three Birds Orchid in flower August 9.

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Ramp or Narrowleaf Wild Leek? That is the question. This was photographed higher up on Greenbrier Ridge. Note the reddish flower pedicels.

Scott Ranger is a friend and an inspiration. He works as a nature tour guide in Alaska during the summer, a job that suits him to a T. There isn’t a topic within the scope of natural history that he does not find fascinating, and the knowledge he has accumulated over the years in wide-ranging disciplines is my eventual goal. I want to be like Scott…well, sort of, and Scott would be the first to laugh heartily at that qualifier!

Like me, Scott loves the Smokies, but he’s been a faithful student of these mountains for decades. I’m still a newbie. So it is a thrill for me that Scott uses my blog to stay in touch with the place he knows and loves so well while living on the far side of the continent. It is a delight to read his comments and sometimes instructional too. Case in point: the onions of Miry Ridge. His thoughts on the identification of these onions got me checking other floras and plant manuals with some interesting, though not conclusive, findings.

On Jakes Creek Trail. There are at least 24 flowers/buds. The stem looks dark and may be anthocyanic, but the flower pedicels are not.

You may recall that Mary and I find small spherical umbels of white flowers on short leafless stems while hiking up Greenbrier Ridge. Plants in the Onion Family (Alliaceae) flower this way. There are also no leaves at the base of these stems, and this indicates either Ramp (Allium tricoccum) or Narrowleaf Wild Leek (Allium burdickii).  A side note here…the opinion that these are two separate species is a relatively recent one. Taxonomists originally considered Narrowleaf Wild Leek to be a variety of Ramp (Allium tricoccum var. burdickii), and some still do.

There is a reddish tint in the papery bract covering the flower buds. Greenbrier Ridge

What are the distinguishing characteristics between the two? Primarily, it is one of size.  As noted in Alan Weakley’s Flora, Ronald Jones’ Plant Life of Kentucky, and Eugene Wofford’s Guide to the Vascular Plants of the Blue Ridge, the bulb, leaves, flowering stem, flower umbel, and other plant parts are typically larger in Ramp.

Bulb – Ramp 2-3 cm thick, NWL 1-1.5 cm thick

Leaves – Ramp 5-8 cm wide, NWL 2-4 cm wide

Stem – Ramp >20 cm tall, NWL <20 cm tall

Umble – Ramp 30-55 flowers, NWL 10-18 flowers [though Ramp could have as few as 15 flowers, and Narrowleaf Wild Leek could have as many as 25]

There are similar size differences in length of the fruit pedicels (stems) and spathe bracts (leafy covering on flower bud) as well. Just to keep things interesting, there is overlap between the two in all these areas – smaller than normal Ramps, larger than normal Narrowleaf Wild Leeks.

Flower buds emerge from the spathe bract. Greenbrier Ridge

Another key difference is the leaf petiole. Wider-leaved Ramp distinctly narrows to a petiole at the base, which is usually tinted red or pink. Narrowleaf Wild Leek has no distinct leaf petiole and is white at the base. Narrowleaf Wild Leek is also reported to flower a month earlier (June) than Ramp (July). The Gleason and Cronquist Manual of Vascular Plants states that other parts of Ramp may be anthocyanic (have a reddish cast), including the flowering stem and spathe bract.

In general, Narrowleaf Wild Leek seems to have a more defined northeastern distribution. Ramp spreads a bit further south and west and is more numerous throughout its range. Both plants are listed as rare and commercially exploited in Tennessee. Weakley notes that plant specimens collected in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and labeled as Narrowleaf Wild Leek appear to be Ramp. The parks’s vascular plant checklist includes both species for mid to high elevations with Ramp “occasional – well distributed, but nowhere abundant” and Narrowleaf Wild Leek “infrequent – scattered locales throughout the park.”

The first plants we encounter on Greenbrier Ridge are already setting seed and have far fewer than 20 flowers. There is also no reddish tint visible on these plants.

So on June 23 and 24 hiking between 3000 and 5000 feet, am I seeing late Narrowleaf Wild Leeks or early Ramps? I look back at all the photos taken of several different individuals on Greenbrier Ridge. Some have as few as 12 flowers, and the first plants we encounter are already setting seed. The stems do appear to be short, but I did not measure them and cannot state they are less than 20 centimeters. The photos of the bulb and spathe bract don’t show scale well enough to accurately indicate size, but there is a distinct reddish cast to the bracts and even the flower pedicels on a few of them.

I notice the flowering onions on Miry Ridge, but do not take photos or note specifics. Having no idea there are two species of such similarity, I do not realize how important close inspection would be. It’s the first rule for good naturalists – sharp observation!  Scott has led Pilgrimage hikes on Miry Ridge in the spring and remembers large leaves with red petioles. That would be Ramp. I do photograph a plant in flower on Jakes Creek. Looking at the image, I can make a case for it appearing taller, and a rough count reveals at least 24 blossoms/buds. Is it possible that both plants are on these trails with Narrowleaf Wild Leek populations on Greenbrier Ridge and Ramp on Miry Ridge and Jakes Creek?  Scott does not recall ever seeing the foliage of Narrowleaf Wild Leek in the Smokies, but has he hiked Greenbrier Ridge in the spring?

Bulb uprooted by a Wild Hog near the top of Greenbrier Ridge.

If this botanical uncertainty is to be settled, I must hike these trails in April and examine the foliage. To paraphrase Euell Gibbons, I’ll be stalking the wild leek!

By the way, Scott has an Alaska blog with beautiful photos and fascinating information on everything from plants and glaciers to bears and whales. Check it out.  http://lscottranger.blogspot.com

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Josh shows us how to get a butterfly out of the net.

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont engages in various Citizen Science projects.  I profiled their bird banding in June.  In early fall, they tag Monarch butterflies migrating to their winter refuge in central Mexico.  I am pleased join this effort on my last day in the Smokies.  Josh Davis, the Citizen Science Coordinator at GSMIT, and nine enthusiastic volunteers head for Sparks Lane in Cades Cove on a sunny and soon to be warm morning.

Josh explains the process, demonstrates the net capture technique, and sets us loose in the meadows.  There are various goldenrods, asters, thistles, and a few other plants in flower.  The thistles in particular attract several species of butterflies.  Too bad we aren’t tagging Pipevine Swallowtails.  There are scores of them nectaring in the fields.  Other species, including Gulf Fritillary, Great Spangled Fritillary, Viceroy (a Monarch mimic), and Buckeye, are seen and recorded for the ATBI (All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory) database in the park.

How to hold a butterfly

Parts of the fields are not hard to wade through even though the meadow plants range from chest to head height.  However, several areas are full of brambles too.  Both dead and live stems snag clothing and skin.  I wound up with several pulled threads and lots of scrapes and scratches on my legs and arms.  Just as Monarchs manage to find their way to wintering grounds they’ve never seen before, many of these wily butterflies seem to know to fly down when a net is positioned over them, swooping under the hoop.  If they escape the first attempt, they are nearly impossible to catch as they quickly head straight up and away beyond the reach of the long-handled net.  Monarchs can fly as fast as 12 miles an hour, and we are no match running through tall weeds.

This young butterfly lover helps on all the tagging dates in the park.

Overall we catch and tag 24 Monarchs at Sparks Lane.  After lunch, we move to Hyatt Lane, where we find just a few Pipevine Swallowtails, a Black Swallowtail, some Pearl Crescents, and several large Argiope Garden Spiders.  I nearly become intimate with two of them, spotting their sudden movement across the web just as I am about to walk right through it.  Fortunately for them and me, I do no damage and they stay put.  Having one of these guys perched on my shoulder would have frightened both of us senseless.

In the fields I find at least one recognizable goldenrod species, Wrinkled-leaf Goldenrod.  Canada Goldenrod is likely another.  There is Old Field Aster in flower, as well as some Lobelia, an Agalinis sp., seeding stalks of Blazing Star, and the Tennessee State Wildflower, Passion-flower (Passiflora incarnata).  There are several species of Thistle in the park, and I don’t determine which ones are flowering.

A pretty Monarch rests briefly on a pretty little volunteer.

We wrap up about 2:00 p.m., and I head home.  On the way out of Cades Cove, I drive into a bear jam.  Park volunteers are on the scene to help manage things and protect both bears and visitors.  While driving slowly along the loop road, window down and sunroof open, I hear crashing noises from the trees around my car.  Looking through the sunroof to see if I can spot a bear in the branches, I realize that I’m hearing acorns dropping!!  From start to finish, this trip is all about acorns.  I’m actually going to miss them!

Passion-flower, Tennessee State Wildflower, in Cades Cove

One of the large and fiercely beautiful Argiope Garden Spiders we find in the fields off Hyatt Lane.

Preparing to tag a Monarch

I caught a fresh and lovely female and placed this tag on the underside of her left hind wing.

Viceroys mimic Monarchs but are easily distinguished by a black line running across the hind wings.

Monarchs are easy to sex. Males have two black dots on their hind wings; females don't.

By tradition, tagged Monarchs are released on the captor's nose.

An excellent young naturalist shows the Great Spangled Fritillary he caught.

This Pipevine Swallowtail loves hanging out on my hand. Photographing him left handed is a challenge.

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Waterfall at Whiteoak Sink

On the western end of the park, there are pockets of exposed limestone surrounded by older Precambrian rock layers that were thrust over the younger Paleozoic formations 200 million years ago when the continents collided. Cades Cove and Wears Cove are two limestone “windows” and between them is a lesser known opening called Whiteoak Sink.  There are no maintained trails into the sink, and park officials would probably prefer people stay out of this unique habitat.  However, Whiteoak Sink is one of the worst kept secrets in GSMNP.   A well-worn manway off Schoolhouse Gap leads to the floor of the sink and the waterfall that disappears underground amid the karst features of caves and sinkholes.

The trail descends through a typical Smokies forest – dying Hemlocks, Dog-hobble, Rosebay Rhododendron, Umbrella and Fraser’s Magnolias, Tulip Tree, Partridgeberry, Pipsissewa, Indian Cucumber Root, Hearts-a-bustin, and various Oaks.  As you approach the sink floor, however, the forest character changes and the types, numbers, and sizes of plants indicate that this is no ordinary place.

Guyandotte Beauty

The richness of the herbaceous layer is testament to the fertility of limestone-derived soils.  Robust, tall plants thickly cover the ground.  Even species that are often demur and retiring grow with exceptional vigor in Whiteoak Sink.  Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), for example, cascades down a small bluff and works its way among the other plants with foliage twice to three times normal size.  Because of the higher pH soils, plant species uncommon in the Smokies grow in lush quantities.  Guyandotte Beauty (Synandra hispidula), Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata), and Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia) wow visitors at the height of their flowering in spring.

Snail on a grape leaf in Whiteoak Sink

A few years ago at the Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, a pilgrim asked what the sweet and heavenly fragrance he noticed in Whiteoak Sink might be.  It is the Phlox.  Few plants are as delightfully fragrant and able to infuse their entire surroundings with perfume quite like Wild Blue Phlox.  Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides var. michauxiana) is found in the sink, and the limestone loving Purple Cliffbrake (Pellaea atropurpurea) and Bulblet Fern (Cystopteris bulbifera) are growing near the Blow Hole, a narrow cave opening that continually pumps out air in the mid-50-degree range.  The Blow Hole has been caged to protect curious humans and threatened bats alike, but hot and weary hikers can cool off quickly just standing next to it.

Northern Green Frog, Spence Branch

It's hard to get this Dung Beetle in focus. He's moving so fast with his perfectly round treasure of horse poop!

Other interesting finds include Hazelnut, Orange-fruited Horse Gentian, Huger’s Carrion-flower, Green Violet, and perhaps a distinct variety of Cutleaf Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata var. humilis).  Dr. Pat Cox extensively studied the genus Rudbeckia and, on our Friday visit to the sink, discovers compelling evidence in support of this variety.  We spot neat snails, grasshoppers, and a very weird fungus.  Along Schoolhouse Gap Trail, we see a Northern Green Frog cooling off in Spence Branch, Dung Beetles grocery shopping for the family in fresh piles of horse manure, an Ebony Jewelwing Dragonfly, colorful Centipedes, and lots of Tiger Swallowtails.

Copperhead blocking the trail in Whiteoak Sink

On our way out of the sink, I am in the lead and stepping carefully on my swollen ankle when I spy a slender, 3-foot Copperhead stretched across the trail and blending frighteningly well with the color of the soil about 5 feet in front of me.  A member of our party irritates him from a safe distance with a trekking pole and convinces him to move out of the way, but not before he strikes two or three times at the annoying pole.   I’m rather grateful now for the hurt foot, for without it I might well have provided, completely unaware, an annoying provocation to strike by stepping on him!

Thanks to a new mushroom field guide, this is a Hemlock Polypore or Hemlock Varnish Shelf (Ganoderma tsugae). Found on dead or dying conifer wood, especially Hemlock. The round white knob will open to a spathulate shape.

Top view of a colorful grasshopper

Side view of same colorful grasshopper

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Tremont staffer Josh Davis with a Louisiana Waterthrush

The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is licensed to band songbirds.  Several times each summer, they erect about a dozen or so mist nets at 6 a.m. and patrol them every 40 minutes until noon to retrieve, document, and band any catches.   GSMIT staffer Josh Davis is in charge of the operation, and he has several summer interns from colleges around the country helping him.  Tremont emailed the banding schedule to all students in their recent SANCP Birds class, and I eagerly took advantage of the overlap with my trip to the Smokies.  Friends Pat Cox, Annette Ranger, and Susan Sweetser, all here for the DLIA Fern Foray Saturday, join the fun bright and early Wednesday morning on Tremont’s campus.

Carolina Wren caught in the net

The nets are a fine, soft, black mesh designed to blend seamlessly into a shadowed forest.  They are stretched vertically near water or along the forest edge to catch birds as they forage or seek shelter.  Birds fly into the net and drop into one of four mesh pockets strung across the surface.  Extracting them is a delicate maneuver requiring a firm but gentle touch to disentangle feet, wings, and beaks without harming the little birds.  The nets mostly yield small songbirds, but a few weeks earlier, Tremont caught a Pileated Woodpecker.  He was really ticked off and drew some staffer blood as payback for the inconvenience.

Tools for banding birds

Each captured bird is placed in a small white muslin bag and carried back to the banding station.  There it is positively identified and measured.  Using several different techniques, including wing feather wear and skull formation, the bird’s age is determined whenever possible as is the gender.  The leg is measured for appropriate band size, and a uniquely numbered tiny aluminum band is crimped around it.  The band number, all bird condition notes, and the net capture location are carefully recorded according to protocol.  When these tasks are finished, the little bird is carried out to the field, placed gently in an open palm, and released.

Red-eyed Vireo nibbling an intern's finger

In addition to me and my friends, teachers taking a summer course at Tremont sit in at the beginning.  A few park visitors show up too.  We all get to witness, learn, and help with the banding.  We catch several Louisiana Waterthrush, two Acadian Flycatchers, a male and female Northern Parula, Phoebe, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-throated Green Warbler, Goldfinch, Carolina Wren, and Chipping Sparrow.  We also catch a hummingbird, but banding hummers requires a separate license.  We simply admired the little guy and released it.  The photos below provide a glimpse of our wonderful morning.

Identifying Flycatchers requires meticulous measurements of wing feathers and beak width.

Examining wing feather wear reveals this male Black-throated Green Warbler is 2 years old.

Female Northern Parula

Banding a Phoebe

Chipping Sparrows look like they are wearing bad toupees!

Black-throated Green Warbler

Acadian Flycatcher

Carolina Wren gets a band

Louisiana Waterthrush in the "Photographer's Hold"

A young visitor learns to hold a bird...

...and prepares to set him free.

Goldfinch

Male Northern Parula

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Wool Sower Gall

As Clarence and I finished our 10.8 mile hike on Rich Mountain, we found a curious object that raised lots of questions for which we had no answers.  It looked like a 2-to- 3-inch diameter dense cotton ball with little russet-colored bumps dotting the surface.  There was a hole on the underside with several seeds inside and part of a twig buried firmly in the mass.

Emailed photos produced immediate identification responses from botanist friends – an oak gall.  A quick internet search revealed that it is a Wool Sower Gall caused by secretions of grubs of Callirhytis seminator, one of the many gall wasps (Cynipids).  This particular wasp is specific to white oak trees and the galls only occur in spring.  This gall is sometimes called an Oak Seed Gall because of the seed-like structures I saw inside which actually contain wasp larvae.

The wasp is a tiny creature just a few millimeters in length with a humped back, and she lays her eggs on a white oak buds.  The eggs hatch in early spring just as new tree growth is beginning.  Chemical secretions from the young grubs stimulate the plant to develop the gall tissue which provides protection and nutrition.  Some gall wasps have alternate generations that develop on a different part of the plant, and the Wool Sower Gall wasp is probably one of those.  One generation is sexually produced and the second is parthenogenetic (from females only).  The offspring in any one generation will most closely resemble and produce galls like their grandparents.

Wool Sower Gall underneath

An article on oak galls by Tony Bratsch, University of Illinois Extension, says over 700 species of gall wasps have been documented in North America.  Galls can also be caused by mites, midges, and a few other insect types.  Oaks seem to be favorite host plants for many.  I’ve spotted Oak Apples, 2-inch round tan balls, and Acorn Plum Galls, smaller smooth greenish, mottled balls the size of a large marble, on trails in recent months and now I can add the Wool Sower Gall.

For some more information, visit these Web sites.
NC State Dept. of Entomology
Springfield Plateau Missouri Master Naturalist
University of Illinois Extension

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Last year while at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont’s Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program Aquatic Ecology class in May, I was introduced to an insect with a compelling method for attracting mates.  Most people know about fireflies, cute little flying beetles with butts that light up at dusk to facilitate one task all lifeforms are driven to accomplish – reproduction.  In Middle Tennessee, our fireflies (lightning bugs) come out once the sun is well below the horizon and produce a bright yellow green light that blinks on and off in the gathering night.  I grew up chasing these little guys on warm evenings in early summer, catching them to crawl on my hand and fly away again or stow temporarily in clear glass jars.

According to Discover Life in America, there are at least 18 species of fireflies in the park.  Some are active during the day and do not produce light.  Others put on a light show at night.  Most famous is the Synchronous Firefly (Photinus carolinus).  At a certain point on June evenings, they will tune up like a visual symphony orchestra and soon start flashing all together to the delight of thousands of visitors gathered for the performance at Elkmont.

The little firefly that captivated me last year at Tremont is the tiny Blue Ghost Firefly (Phausis reticulata).  Unlike other species, the light is a faint bluish color, and instead of flashing on and off, it stays lit for several seconds and gradually diminishes.  It is nothing short of magical.

At GSMIT for my Birds class this May, I could hardly wait for darkness Friday night, and several fellow SANCPers walk with me to the West Prong Trail across Tremont Road.  We meet a group of three other classmates returning with the news that the fireflies are not out.  Undeterred, we station ourselves near the Walker Valley Cemetery and soon see a few of the tiny lights moving through the forest.  There are not very many of them, but the evening air is delightful, so we stay a little while.  Walking back we get a brighter light show from all the stars visible in the clear dark sky.

A weather system blows through early Saturday morning bringing a rain storm followed by cooler temperatures and a gradually clearing sky.  By nightfall, the sky is filled with stars.  Others have indicated a desire to see the fireflies that night, but our early start Saturday and even earlier start planned the next morning moves everyone to prepare for bed.  At 9:30, I grab my flashlight and head out alone.  The temperature is cool, but the wind is calm and and the evening is very pleasant.  Once in place leaning on the fence, I squelch my light and wait for theirs.  It doesn’t take long.

Ahead of me, the forest and hillside are completely indistinguishable and clothed in total darkness.  Overhead I can see the black silhouette of trees against the marginally lighter sky.  A star winks through the foliage.  It requires a place this dark to get the full impact of these tiny creatures.  They have discovered the advantage as well, since they wait until night fully arrives to begin.

Perhaps the morning rain helped, but the numbers of fireflies are way up tonight.  Soon the little blue lanterns are drifting in and out among the trees.  The effect is truly remarkable.  It is easy to lose a sense of yourself in such total darkness.  The gentle rise and fall of the flying insects as tracked by their faint glow has an ethereal, underwater quality to it, and I can almost feel myself bobbing up and down with them.

At times the light is so faint, I am not sure if I am seeing it or not, especially when viewing straight on.  In these instances, it is actually easier to see them peripherally. They also seem to exhibit something of a cycle. Periodically, there is a brief lull with few insects lighting up.  Soon, though, dozens of tiny blue trails float through the air.

The night is quiet and still with the lone exception of a Barred Owl hooting ‘Who Cooks for You?” twice in the distance.  The only other sound is generated by my hair moving across my rain jacket when I turn my head.  For thirty minutes, I remain transfixed and entranced.  Shortly after 10:00, my bright flashlight renders theirs invisible, and I walk back to the dorm pausing briefly in the parking lot to admire once again the other light show shining above.

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