Sept/Oct 2020Lowcountry Ghosts Text by Lynn Faust Original art by Ellen Fishburne
On an evening stroll, there is a chance you may spot ghostly glowing lights dancing in the distance. Remain calm. Most likely, fireflies are on the move!
The only thing darker than a Lowcountry nightfall might be the tales frequently shared as truths about strange lights that shine, with what some say is a supernatural glow, near the swampy lowlands. When Mary Douglass and Tom Jones, members of the South Carolina Association of Naturalists (SCAN), decided to take an after-dinner stroll with friends along the sandy back roads of the SCDNR’s James W. Webb Wildlife Center last March 23, 2019, little did they expect to have a first-hand twilight encounter. Are they plat-eyes, or maybe Bingham’s Lights? Maybe they are will-o-the-wisps trying to lead travelers away from the safety of well-worn paths? Or maybe it’s just swamp gasses that feature an eerie phosphorescent glow? The truth is, they are Lowcountry ghosts.
This SCAN group was enjoying a naturalists’ weekend at the Webb Center in Hampton County, staying in the grand historic 1890 hunting lodge formerly owned by the famed Belmont family. The property was later purchased by the state of South Carolina in 1941, and is now administered by the SCDNR. After dinner, this small group of six began their sunset walk with no particular goal other than to enjoy their surroundings and see what they could discover. They expected to get back before dark, thus only one dim flashlight accompanied them.
Anytime a group of naturalists gets together in an interesting place, time gets away from everyone! Dark was fast approaching. They discussed whether they should backtrack the way they had come or try to complete a loop of uncertain distance. No adventuresome soul enjoys backtracking, so it was quickly decided. Besides, it is usually much more fun to forge ahead into the unknown, even when it is dark, so they did.
As soon as true darkness fell, intermittent darting and hovering pale lights appeared all around the group:
“What was that?”
“Did I just see something?”
“Did you folks just see an odd flicker of light over there?
Am I imagining it?”
They knew they were seeing something, yet they were not sure just exactly what was making the enigmatic spooky lights.
This is the point of night when most people are inside or at least winding down on their porches. Few are out on the edge of a swamp where the snakes might be grabbing the last little bit of heat on the pathways and where the hungry mosquitoes and gnats are abundant. If people are out, they usually have a bright flashlight or lantern burning, virtually blinding them to their overall surroundings, including the mysterious jiggling lights in the night.
The group was by now standing in complete darkness near a swampy area that opened to a pine savanna. Out loud they wondered what these moving, slightly creepy lights were. Some folks at this point of eerie uncertainty, surrounded by something unknown, would conjure up visions of all the Lowcountry ghost light stories they had ever heard and make a beeline back to safety, and who would blame them? But this group of seasoned nature lovers quickly discarded the will-o-the-wisp or plat-eye notion as the source of the mysterious lights.
These dim wavering lights, appearing blue or green, were turning off and on all around them, swinging wildly back and forth at eye level, flickering, briefly glowing, hovering sometimes and other times darting about quickly, then disappearing entirely, only to reappear at random intervals somewhere else, always just out of reach. They were surrounded.
Naturalists are nothing if not curious. Tom Jones braved his way into the brambles where the highest density of lights was haphazardly floating and zigzagging through the dark air. He triumphantly found a more or less stationary glowing cluster on the ground. All were amazed to discover very tiny, grain of rice-sized lightning bugs, like nothing they had ever seen in their childhoods, much smaller and less colorful, and most interestingly, dimly glowing instead of flashing. The cluster was composed of males scrambling and fighting to gain the attention of a glowing female. Mary and Tom and their group had made the first ever discovery of an unknown species of Phausis thriving in the Lowcountry near the Savannah River, far from the mountains of the Appalachians where the closest described species lives, the more famous blue ghost, Phausis reticulata. Their other close kin, the shadow ghost Phausis inaccensa, has males that lack lanterns and cannot glow, thus they fly dark in many of the eastern states. These Lowcountry ghosts are something new, still formerly unknown to science. Consider, as well, that perhaps the past generations knew these ghostly lights quite well, yet by other names, given in their rich Lowcountry legends: Haints and hags, Bingham’s light, swamp gas, will-o-the-wisp, plat-eyes.
Two weeks later, Mary and Tom were joined by South Carolina beetle expert Jan Ciegler and myself back at the Webb Center to see if the little ghosts were still there and to learn as much as we could about these mysterious sprites. I returned for four nights this year, 2020, to continue studies, just before COVID-19 ground the normal lives of the entire world to a screeching halt. How I wish I could have spent the entire pandemic in this beautiful isolated place!
So, other than suggesting that at least some Lowcountry haint tales might be loosely based on these ephemeral yet slightly creepy lights of the night, why am I writing this account? I fully believe populations of these of Phausis ghosts most likely exist throughout the coastal plain area in proper habitat. The fact that their adult courtship season is so short, their nightly male display incredibly brief and their habitat so generally unwelcoming at night, all combine to rationally explain why they are just now being reported to the world of science. But if you listen closely to Lowcountry legends, you will realize that these lights have most likely been seen throughout the centuries by nighttime travelers along the back roads and swamps of the Carolinas.
People who read South Carolina Wildlife are much more likely than most to be curious and willing to venture out into their own little “wild patch” — be it their farm, woodlot, hunting camp or deer stand — at night to have a look. Below, I will instruct you on exactly what, when and where to look, and I will tell you just little bit about the lives of your very special Lowcountry “Ghosts.” If you find a population, congratulations, you are one of the few! And please let me know.
Here is what we know so far: The Lowcountry Ghosts appear on warm, preferably moonless nights for a brief ten-day to two-week period (at Webb WMA) from mid-March to mid-April when the pinksters, blackberries, dewberries and swamp-loving white Atamasco lilies are in full bloom. The sputtering, dimly glowing, courtship flight of the males occurs right after full darkness falls, about 8:30 EDT and only lasts for fifteen to thirty minutes. During this same time, the flightless, worm-like females steadily glow from the ground hoping to attract a male. By 9:00 p.m., it is all over and everyone goes dark. Hopefully both males and females have had success and found one another during this brief window of glowing courtship.
The habitat where all the populations have been found so far is scrubby blackberry and dog fennel thicket margins usually near the junction of green swamplands and upland pine savannas in the Lowcountry. When captured by spiders that set up webs along their flight paths, the little male ghosts, looking like silk-wrapped mummies, glow helplessly and continuously until death.
Fire is an essential part of the landscape in this region. Historically, these tiny wingless females and weak flying males and their larvae have adapted to survive frequent natural fires or they would have disappeared long ago. The effect of prescribed burning on their lives might depend on when the actual burns occur. To be so tiny and fragile, these fireflies exhibit incredible tenacity in an ever changing, harsh habitat filled with dangers.
The males, which have little clear windshields covering their heads, are dark colored, winged and have two intermittently glowing lanterns used in courting and finding the earthbound wingless females. Their eerie courtship display occurs at head-height or lower, as they hover in or near the brambles. Males give non-continuous, flickering glows, sometimes hovering, other times darting erratically for one to five seconds. If close to the observer, their glows appear green. If they are farther away, and depending on the age of your eyes, they may appear bluish. Females, resembling pale grains of rice, nestle in the pine needles and ground litter and continuously glow from two green glow-spots at the end of their tails.
If you find yourself out in the dark of the Lowcountry in the spring, and you see something that raises the hairs on the back of your neck, thinking you are being stalked perhaps by a plat-eye, a will-o-the-wisp or Bingham’s Light, instead of running, take a deep breath and stop for a closer look. Maybe, just maybe, instead of something from the rich spirit world of Lowcountry legend, the eerie glows you see are coming from tiny glowing Lowcountry Ghosts looking for love.
Lynn Frierson Faust is a naturalist and author of Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs: Identification and Natural History of the Fireflies of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada, University of Georgia Press. For the past three decades, she has and continues to conduct field studies, research projects and speak around the world, publish scientific papers and consult with museums, universities, parks and nature documentary teams on the topic of fireflies. With her equally terrified friend Karen Armsby, Lynn was once chased by a plat-eye bee for over an hour on Pritchard Island. Lynn is a believer in the Lowcountry spirits!