Unbeknown to most, the Blue Mountains are alive with fireflies for three weeks every year. Joel Johnsson has the lowdown on how to see this unlikely spectacle.
Follow the Flicker of Light
The hour between sunset and complete darkness is a magical time in the mountains. As the light fades, the sounds begin – the creaking baritone of the frogs, the bats’ falsetto that echoes across the sky, the twinkling vibrato of the night crickets; a soft symphony of the night.
And on humid December nights, if you’re sitting quietly, something else stirs in that transition between night and day. A flicker of light in the undergrowth, pulsing in the twilight.
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.
Seeing fireflies has been on my bucket list for a long time. Parts of the United States and Japan are famous for firefly displays, and I narrowly missed the window of opportunity to see them in the Philippines on a recent dive trip.
So you can imagine my surprise when a canyoning partner mentioned in passing that he had seen them last year in the Blue Mountains. It’s a little like discovering one of the Seven Wonders of the World is actually tucked away just out the back of Newcastle.Fireflies are actually flying beetles of the family Lampyridae, closely related to glowworms.
There are around 25 species, of which we have a handful in Australia – the ones near Sydney are exclusively the Blue Mountains Firefly. Fireflies emerge for a few weeks every year around the start of December and only live for a couple of days.
The light they produce is the result of a chemical reaction, triggered by oxygen, which must be continually recharged – hence the flashing bursts, rather than the steady glow of the glowworms.
All of this is for the reason you’d probably expect – sex. Males fly around blinking wildly in the dark, while females, stationary, will shine a light when they see something they like, allowing him to find her in the dark. It’s all very romantic and tragic, as far as bug-sex goes.
So, if the twinkling lights of a field of fireflies capture your imagination as strongly as they did mine, just over an hour from Sydney a twilight wonderland awaits, glistening softly in the night.
What I’ve Learned from My Hunt for the Fireflies
- Fireflies in the Blue Mountains area are out for around 3 weeks, starting as early as the last week of November.
- It appears that fireflies are more widely spread than you might expect – over the course of around seven outings, we found them at the bottom of the Grose Valley and the Cox’s River, up around Mt. Wilson and right down in the gullies around Glenbrook and Springwood.
- Hot and humid nights are the best! The most vibrant display was on a night of 27° and 70% humidity. They emerge right on complete dark, around 45 minutes after sunset.
- As you would expect from a creature that has the sun shining out of its arse, fireflies are pretty conceited. They really don’t like any other light (phones, torches etc) or noise. Headlamps with a red light can help you navigate around, but it’s better to stay still or move slowly and let your eyes adjust, rather than shining torches around.
These guys were the most challenging and rewarding photography subjects I’ve come across in a long time! Be prepared for trial and error. In order to get both background and fireflies, you’ll need to take two exposures. Tripods, long shutter speeds (15sec+) and high ISO are the go, and you’ll need to think carefully about noise management.