Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Ten weeks, ten states, and a symphony of birdsong

listening to a continent sing kroodsma jacketTake a journey across ten weeks and ten states,  from one coast of America to another, as Donald Kroodsma and his son bike 5,000 miles and record birdsong along the way. In Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Kroodsma  provides a written account of this inspirational adventure that is one part personal memoir, one part guided history, one part invitation to pursue your own dreams. The book is beautifully illustrated, incorporating images of the vast terrain and animals the pair encountered on their trip. QR codes link to audio of birdsong throughout.

Click through to enlarge some of the book’s images here.

Firefly Fact Friday

In honor of the publication of Silent Sparks by Sara Lewis, we are going to suspend Bird Fact Friday for the next few weeks and replace it with Firefly Fact Friday. Silent Sparks is filled with a wealth of fascinating information on fireflies, and we’re excited to share it with you!

From page 17 of Silent Sparks:

Fireflies begin life as larvae, living underground and dedicated to eating and growth. They can subdue and consume prey several times their size, including earthworms and snails. Fireflies only live as adults for a few weeks, compared with the one to three years that make up their juvenile stage.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies 
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

A journey through birdsong

In Listening to a Continent Sing, Donald Kroodsma details a cross-country cycling trip he took with his son, David, in order to, literally, listen to the continent sing. Throughout, he describes in lyrical prose all of the birds he heard as they pedaled west along the TransAmerica Route—established in 1976 for the “Bikecentennial” of our country—and all of the adventures that he and his son experienced along the way. They began their journey in Yorktown, Virginia on May 4. Read on for a behind-the scenes glimpse of the symphony that is the Virginian countryside in mid-spring. Be sure to use the QR codes, found in the book, to hear the birds for yourself!

On May 4, day 1 of the journey, Kroodsma describes listening to the world wake up around him from inside the tent, his son sleeping beside him (“Best not to get up before the sun,” he says.).

A robin begins to sing, 5:34 a.m. according to my watch, about half an hour before sunrise. His low, sweet carols drop from above one by one, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerio, cheerily, and I am soon silently singing with him, three to five carols over a few seconds, then a brief pause. I feel his tempo, counting the number of carols in the next package and pausing, counting and pausing, his initial measured pace calming. I try to stretch each quarter-second carol into a second or more, slowing his performance, relishing the varying patterns in pitch and rhythm, listening and watching as miniature musical scores float through my mind.

American Robin
Day 2 brings a trip to Malvern Hill, sight of a bloody Civil War battle nearly 150 years before. In memory of that battle, the intrepid duo is subdued as they listen to the sweet call of a field sparrow.

Emerging from the insanity of this scene is the requiem now offered by a field sparrow nearby. His gentle whistles accelerate, sliding down the scale, each whistle a little shorter and lower than the one before, a two-second lament for all who suffered here. Every few seconds he repeats his mournful song, over and over, never-ending. In the distance I hear two others, each with a unique cadence, each offering his own comment on the scene that his ancestors some hundred generations ago would have witnessed here.

Field Sparrows
On the road between Afton and Lexington, Virginia, day 6, an early morning ride is accompanied by the Eastern towhee.

Still, silence … until a single, tentative chewink of an eastern towhee pierces the quiet. With my right hand, I fumble beneath the sleeve over my left wrist to punch the light button on my watch, leaning over the left handlebar to catch a glimpse 5:25 a.m., 45 minutes before sunrise. The call is contagious, as chewinks now erupt from seemingly every roadside bush. In less than a minute I hear a feeble song, then a louder one, and soon the bushes sing, drink-your-teeeeeee, two strongly enunciated introductory notes followed by a rapid series of repeated notes. The birds ease into it, at first repeating one song several times, much as they do later in the morning, but then the warm-up is over and no holds are barred.

Eastern towhee
For the next two months, father and son cycled across the United States listening to hundreds of birds, meeting new people, and enjoying the great outdoors together. Read Listening to a Continent Sing and let Kroodsma take you along for the ride. And if you’re interested in the story behind the cover design, check out the PUP Design tumblr!

Kroodsma

Bird Fact Friday – Is the Mute Swan silent?

From page 284 of Waterfowl of North America, Europe & Asia:

The Mute Swan is not mute at all. Its most frequent call is a wee-rrrr or wiingrr-iew with a high-pitched second syllable. It will also make an in-rrr sound accompanied with strong hissing in aggression. In flight, the wings produce a whistling sound, typical of the species.

Waterfowl of North America, Europe, and Asia: An Identification Guide 
Sébastien Reeber

ReeberThis is the ultimate guide for anyone who wants to identify the ducks, geese, and swans of North America, Europe, and Asia. With 72 stunning color plates (that include more than 920 drawings), over 650 superb photos, and in-depth descriptions, this book brings together the most current information on 84 species of Eurasian and North American waterfowl, and on more than 100 hybrids. The guide delves into taxonomy, identification features, determination of age and sex, geographic variations, measurements, voice, molt, and hybridization. In addition, the status of each species is treated with up-to-date details on distribution, population size, habitats, and life cycle. Color plates and photos are accompanied by informative captions and 85 distribution maps are also provided. Taken together, this is an unrivaled, must-have reference for any birder with an interest in the world’s waterfowl.

Attract some more Silent Sparks in your life

With firefly season drawing ever closer, we thought it would be a good time to share some tips for making your yard friendlier to these bright bugs. In addition to a wealth of information on fireflies, Silent Sparks by Sara Lewis includes a handy field guide for the firefly-enthusiast. Use these to fill your yard with twinkling lights during the summer evenings ahead.

Fireflies love a yard with spots of longer grass because when grass is longer, the soil holds more moisture. Fireflies need moist places to lay their eggs. If you leave some leaf litter and other natural debris in your yard, baby fireflies will have a place to grow.

When thinking about outdoor light, err on the side of less. Light pollution confuses fireflies during their courtship rituals. Use Dark-Sky compliant, shielded fixtures. Use bulbs with the lowest wattage that will meet your needs. Turn off outdoor lights when you’re not using them, or put them on timers or motion sensors.

Finally, limit your use of pesticides to horticultural oils or insecticidal bacteria that will target specific pests. Consider using organic products, and only apply them to target specific problems as opposed to routinely.

If you follow this expert advice, you’ll be on your way to a sparkling summer! While you’re at it, enter to win your own copy of Silent Sparks.

Lewis

Follow the wild bees with Thomas D. Seeley

following the wild bees seeleyBee hunting—in which one captures and sumptuously feeds wild bees, and then releases and follows them back to their secret residence—is virtually unknown today, though it was once widely practiced. Thomas D. Seeley, world authority on honey bees, vividly explores the exhilarating pastime in his new book Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting. A unique meditation on the natural world as well as a how-to guide, the book provides history and science about the craft alongside gorgeous photos and helpful diagrams.

Click through the gallery below to see some of Seeley’s essential tools for bee hunting as well as fascinating photographs captured during the hunt.

5 Myths About Sustainability

On Earth Day and everyday we all need to focus on ways to be more environmentally conscious and responsible. In Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson draw on the most up-to-date science to provide a handy guide that links knowledge to action. In the process, they debunk commonly held misconceptions about sustainability. The first step in affecting positive change is awareness:

1. Sustainability challenges are largely a problem of consumption.
In meeting the challenges posed by implementing sustainable practices, production and consumption should be viewed as parts of an integrated system. Demand may drive production, but production can influence consumption by creating a demand where there was none previously. (Pg. 16).

2. As we move toward more sustainable practices, precedence should be given to the environment; humans should be considered as negative pressures that put ecosystems at risk.
To meet the goals of sustainable development, there needs to be an integrated appreciation and understanding of the social-environmental systems that we are operating in or any solutions will be unbalanced and fall apart over the long-term (Pg. 53).

3. Better policies and technologies are all that is needed to meet the environmental challenges ahead.
The complexity of social-environmental systems means that we cannot always predict the consequences of new technologies or policies. The pursuit of sustainability has to be an adaptive process in which we try the best possible solutions, moniter the results, and make adjustments as needed (Pg. 64).

4. GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNI (Gross National Income) are useful metrics when considering sustainability.
Both of these measures do not take important elements into account. First, they measure flows (what is happening now) rather than stocks or assets (what’s left to draw on in the future). They also fail to recognize and integrate the social and environmental as well as the economic determinants of well-being. To achieve an accurate sense of how we are doing in regard to sustainability, other measures and indicators that are more inclusive and broad-ranging are needed (Pg. 76).

5. Implementing sustainable practices means sacrificing profits.
Not necessarily. When taking into account social-environmental systems, sustainable solutions can actually save money. For examples of sustainability success stories that aided in, rather than hindering, economic goals, see Chapter 6 of Pursuing Sustainability.

As we work to meet the challenges posed by climate change and environmental vulnerability, it is important to educate ourselves so that we can arrive at solutions that will work over the long term. This Earth Day, Pamela Matson, William C. Clark, and Krister Andersson’s book is necessary reading.

Bird Fact Friday – How do hawks fly such great distances?

From page 7 of Hawks from Every Angle:

Several factors influence the migratory pathways of raptors, including geography. Mountainous sites are famous for attracting concentrations of migrating hawks, in part because as wind strikes a ridge it is deflected upward, providing birds with a current of air—or updraft—along the ridge for more energy-efficient means of travel. Raptors can travel along these updrafts for miles, covering great distances with little to no effort.
Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight
Jerry Liguori
Foreword by David A. Sibley

hawksIdentifying hawks in flight is a tricky business. Across North America, tens of thousands of people gather every spring and fall at more than one thousand known hawk migration sites—from New Jersey’s Cape May to California’s Golden Gate. Yet, as many discover, a standard field guide, with its emphasis on plumage, is often of little help in identifying those raptors soaring, gliding, or flapping far, far away.

Hawks from Every Angle takes hawk identification to new heights. It offers a fresh approach that literally looks at the birds from every angle, compares and contrasts deceptively similar species, and provides the pictures (and words) needed for identification in the field. Jerry Liguori pinpoints innovative, field-tested identification traits for each species from the various angles that they are seen.

Featuring 339 striking color photos on 68 color plates and 32 black & white photos, Hawks from Every Angle is unique in presenting a host of meticulously crafted pictures for each of the 19 species it covers in detail—the species most common to migration sites throughout the United States and Canada. All aspects of raptor identification are discussed, including plumage, shape, and flight style traits.

For all birders who follow hawk migration and have found themselves wondering if the raptor in the sky matches the one in the guide, Hawks from Every Angle—distilling an expert’s years of experience for the first time into a comprehensive array of truly useful photos and other pointers for each species—is quite simply a must.

Bird Fact Friday – Southern Africa: A Birder’s Paradise

From page 10 of Birds of Southern Africa:

Southern Africa encompasses Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, and southern and central Mozambique, as well as oceanic waters within 200 nautical miles of the coast. In total it covers a land area of approximately 3.5 million square kilometers and has incredible diversity in its bird life. More birds breed in Southern Africa than in the United States and Canada combined. Currently, there are 951 known species, 144 of which are endemic or near-endemic. One of the reasons for this high bird diversity is the region’s climatic and topographical diversity. The climate ranges from cool-temperate in the southwest to hot and tropical in the north.

Birds of Southern Africa Fourth Edition 
Ian Sinclair, Phil Hockey, Warwick Tarboton & Peter Ryan
Africa

 

Birds of Southern Africa continues to be the best and most authoritative guide to the bird species of this remarkable region. This fully revised edition covers all birds found in South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and southern Mozambique. The 213 dazzling color plates depict more than 950 species and are accompanied by more than 950 color maps and detailed facing text.

This edition includes new identification information on behavior and habitat, updated taxonomy, additional artwork, improved raptor and wader plates with flight images for each species, up-to-date distribution maps reflecting resident and migrant species, and calendar bars indicating occurrence throughout the year and breeding months.

Bird Fact Friday – Penguins of the tropics

From page 22 of Wildlife of the Galápagos:

The Galápagos Penguin is unique in a couple of different ways. At 50 centimeters in length, it is one of the smallest penguins in the world. It is the only penguin to breed entirely within the tropics, and the only one to be found in the northern hemisphere.

Wildlife of the Galápagos 
Second Edition
Julian Fitter, Daniel Fitter & David Hosking
Introduction

FitterSince its first publication more than a decade ago, Wildlife of the Galápagos has become the definitive, classic field guide to the natural splendors of this amazing part of the world. Now fully updated, this essential and comprehensive guide has been expanded to include the more than 400 commonly seen birds, mammals, reptiles, invertebrates, and plants, and other coastal and marine life of this wondrous archipelago. Over 650 stunning color photographs, maps, and drawings are accompanied by accessible, descriptive text. This new edition includes information about all the common fish of the region and Spanish names are featured for the first time. There is also a revised section that discusses the islands’ history, climate, geology, and conservation, with the most current details on visitor sites.

50 lucky birders will win a North American Warbler Fold-Out Guide

Warblers

In honor of the start of warbler migration season, we’re giving away the laminated, portable North American Warbler Fold-Out Guide to the first 50 entrants to our giveaway hosted by Rafflecopter. The foldout includes identification data for warblers in North America with accompanying QR codes that provide 3D models and songs.

To enter, please follow the instructions in the box below. Good luck!

Warblers

 

*UPDATE*

As of 3:21PM EST, we have reached 50 entrants. Thank you to everyone who participated! If you missed your chance, check back next week for another giveaway.