NEWBURYPORT — Ever get that nagging feeling you’re being eaten alive? If you’ve been at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge or Salisbury Beach the last few days, you probably have been. That’s because one of the sure signs of summer, greenhead flies, have made their return, albeit a little early.
Officials at both destinations have reported seeing the flies as recently as last Wednesday with even greater numbers seen over the weekend. Greenheads, which earn their name from their fluorescent green heads, are a large and aggressive deerfly that can be found near their spawning grounds in the salt marshes. They deliver a painful bite.
CJ Cronin, lifeguard supervisor on Salisbury Beach, believes warmer weather last winter and spring is the main reason the pesky pests have returned earlier this season.
Bill Gette, Joppa Flats sanctuary director for Mass Audubon, said the flies are typically around for a month before disappearing for the rest of the summer. The height of greenhead season is expected to begin in the next week or so.
“We’re hoping that means it will be done a little earlier,” Gette said.
For Gette, the early appearance of greenheads has made leading birding tours at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge challenging, as patrons would have to divert much of their attention shooing away the annoying insects rather than focusing on the vast array of birds found in the refuge.
“It’s quite uncomfortable when you’re birding,” Gette said.
Greenheads typically come out in larger numbers during the hottest parts of the day, so those interested in birding are encouraged to head out early, before 10:30 a.m.
Thankfully, the flies make tasty treats for many of the birds found in the refuge, including tree swallows, purple martins and king birds.
“They feast on them,” Gette said.
Refuge outdoor recreation planner Jean Adams said so far the greenheads haven’t been causing too much of a problem for beachgoers.
“It was extremely busy yesterday and the day before and no one said a word about greenheads,” Adams said.
Over at Salisbury Beach, Cronin said the flies have not been too obtrusive and certainly haven’t driven off beachgoers, who apparently were willing to put up with periodic annoyance to cool off during the region’s recent heat wave.
“It hasn’t affected our patrons as much,” Cronin said.
What makes greenheads particularly nasty? Jack Card from Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control and Wetlands Management District said the flies bite through a person’s skin with a mouth that resembles miniature pruning shears.
“They will actually cut you and suck your blood. It causes pain,” Card said.
Greenheads typically prefer parts of the body less covered in hair and have the ability to bite through tight clothing.
In an attempt to limit the population of greenheads, Card said his agency has laid about 336 traps in breeding grounds located in Newbury, Newburyport, Ipswich and Saugus. Greenhead larve are typically found within salt marsh sod, Card said.
Greenheads are attracted to dark-colored clothing.
Gette said insect repellents have mixed effectiveness against greenheads and recommended Skin So Soft as opposed to Off and other DEET-containing repellents. Even when protected with repellent, greenheads will continue buzzing around a person’s head looking for a soft spot, Gette added.
“They are annoying,” Gette said.