Fireflies light up the river

Brisbane may have its Riverfire festival every September but here in Townsville we have our very own Festival of Fireflies right now, along the lower reaches of the Ross River. An article in the Townsville Bulletin last week alerted me to this spectacle which I first witnessed a few years ago when walking along the river bike track as dusk fell.

On Sunday evening I took my two grandsons down to the river around sunset. We started walking downstream from Aplin’s Weir, on the Annandale side of the river, at about 6.30pm. As the apricot-coloured full moon emerged low in the sky the first little insectivorous bats were darting and fluttering over our heads. We walked for a few hundred metres, crossing a small bridge where an agitated masked lapwing, presumably with a nest nearby, made several low swoops over our heads, much to the boys’ excitement. We were not too far beyond this when we spotted the first firefly, then another and another… suddenly, looking across to the middle of the river we could see dozens, then hundreds more. As the sky darkened the whole area, from bank to bank, was alive with dancing, flickering lights, while the steady procession of flying foxes over our heads, making their way upriver, added to the experience. Magical!

In the Bulletin article JCU’s Dr Richard Rowe was quoted as saying the display should continue until Christmas but I would suggest people take the opportunity to see it soon while the weather stays fine. Wet or windy conditions will cause the males to abandon the search for a mate which is what initiates the light display. Other information suggests that activity decreases when there is a full moon, since moonlight interferes with the insects’ vision and light-producing capability – as it turned out we were fortunate that the moon disappeared into a bank of cloud soon after rising. The display appeared to start about half an hour after sunset but doesn’t go on all night – one source informs me that it might last for only 30-45 minutes, which was about how long we stayed. It seemed that after that time, although the flashes from the fireflies were still as bright, there were fewer in number. As the days lengthen the time when they first appear gets a little later – from mid-October I would suggest the best viewing time would be from around 7pm.

Our viewing point on the Annandale side of the river – roughly a third of the way between Aplins Weir and the Bowen Road bridge – was excellent. We were close to the edge of the grassy river flats which at this point spread almost right across the river’s width, and there were few other lights around. You could view the same stretch of river from the Mundingburra side although you might not be able to get so close to the action without clambering down the steep bank.

If you do venture down to the river one fine night you might like to take the following:

  • mossie repellant (hopefully it doesn’t also repel fireflies)
  • binoculars (wonderful for viewing the display right across the river)
  • hat (to ward off the attentions of nesting lapwings!)
  • torch (to find your way back to your car – but switch off while watching the fireflies)

If anyone has more information about fireflies, or tips about the best places to see them, please email me and I can add the information to this post.

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