Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reveling in Nature's Spectacle: Firefly Storm at Chateau Papillon

I saw one of the most spectacular things I’ve ever witnessed tonight, compliments of Mother Nature: a firefly "storm" which unfolded in the fading hours of the evening in the woods at Chateau Papillon.  Thousands of lightning bugs lit up the trees in a rapid-fire display of bioluminescence, blinking on and off several times a second  like camera strobes in the stands of a fantastical stadium.

I've always marveled at the beauty which is out there simply for the viewing to those who care to take the time to look, and I've certainly seen my fair share of Mother Nature's artwork (often shaped and refined by Father Time).  I have to put the firefly storm up there with the most poignant of those images.

These weren't the “normal” fireflies I caught as a child, either; those blink slowly, showing a greenish-yellow flash off every few seconds and with a duration for each lasting a lengthy half second or so.  We've had that sort of firefly in the yard since late May.  No, tonight's performance consisted of staccato, rapid-fire flashes, durations less than a tenth of a second but much more frequent (to the point individuals seemed to flash two or three times a second, perhaps).  And where the lightning bugs I'm most familiar with put on their show no higher than waist level, these filled the trees to their tops.

Our neighbors had their lights off, which really helped (they usually have a large lantern serving as a streetlight in their front yard), although the skies were still a far cry from solid black--more a 50% grey between clouds and the light pollution that’s been part of my life outside the occasional trip to the spaces of the desert west or the isolated Appalachian forest.  The evening, too, was unusually serene; even the frogs habituating our pond and the damp woods kept mostly to themselves to admire the light show in silence.

However, this was not a sight easily captured or preserved.  The low intensity of the fireflies' glow necessitated long exposure and high ISO (light sensitivity) on my camera; however, the short durations of the individual flashes even then barely registered, and the high ISO coupled with long exposure times did introduce a lot of noise into the photographs--which incidentally is evident as a lot of small dots, much like the fireflies themselves!  Additionally, the longer-flashing, "traditional" fireflies I grew up with registered best (visible in several cases above as streaks of light as they moved across the image while alight), when I wanted to capture the rapid-fire, photo-strobe effect I'd never seen before.  I also tried to film the display, but my video camera just couldn't render the scene at all due to the extremely low light.

To deal with what I could photograph, I cleaned up the image by taking a second long exposure with the lens cap in place; this resulted in a photo with the worst of the noise still present against an otherwise-black background; blending that layer in "difference" mode in Photoshop over the original image cancelled out a large amount of the worst noise.

Not having a video or really much of a photo to share really don't disappoint me that much, though; in fact, it reinforces the true beauty of Nature as I witnessed it, something transient and elusive, resisting the grasp of technology and the possessive hand of mankind.  You truly had to be there to see it, and I for one feel the better for having done just that.

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