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The Greenhead Whisperer wants me to make friends with the flies

In 22 years working at Plum Island, Jean Adams has never been bitten by one of these monsters. Even crazier is her reason why.

Parker River Wildlife Refuge outdoor recreation planner Jean Adams has run the nesting piping plovers program at Plum Island for 22 years and says she's never been bitten by a greenhead.
Parker River Wildlife Refuge outdoor recreation planner Jean Adams has run the nesting piping plovers program at Plum Island for 22 years and says she's never been bitten by a greenhead.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

PLUM ISLAND — “That’s your fault,” Jean Adams scolded me as she watched a greenhead fly take a chunk of flesh out of my calf.

“That’s your fault,” she repeated as a second greenhead drew blood from my ankle.

“Jeez, they really do hate you,” she said with genuine amazement as a swarm enveloped me and I tried to fight them off with my reporter’s notebook. “But they’re only attacking you because they know you don’t like them. See how none of them are bothering me? That’s because they know that I love them.”

Until this moment, I was convinced that Jean Adams was completely full of it. This seemed like a reasonable reaction to someone who claims to be a “greenhead whisperer.”

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So to call her bluff, I had done something I swore I would never do because I don’t have a death wish: I went to Plum Island on a sunny day in July.

Parker River Wildlife Refuge outdoor recreation planner Jean Adams created this sign warning visitors of the greenhead flies.
Parker River Wildlife Refuge outdoor recreation planner Jean Adams created this sign warning visitors of the greenhead flies. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

That’s because Plum Island in July is notorious for being infested with my least-favorite creature on planet Earth, Tabanus nigrovittatus, the wretched greenhead horseflies that crawl out of salt marshes each year to spend a month or so tormenting any animals they can get their teeth on as they search for the blood females need to lay their second batch of eggs. They prefer sunny, beachy days for their attacks because they also have a sense of humor.

I have written too much about greenheads already, given them too much of my time and blood in a futile effort to find anything that might work against them. I’ve tried dryer sheets and WD-40, gin and Skin So Soft, homemade potions and reflective blankets. I even tried some weird necklace thingy a guy from New Jersey mailed me. The only thing they succeeding in doing was making the flies hungrier.

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I had actually resolved to never write about greenheads again. What more was there to say? There was no way to defeat them without the nuclear codes. Then fate intervened, and a reader connected me with Adams, and the next thing I knew I was on the phone with a woman who claimed that in 22 years as a park ranger for the US Fish and Wildlife Service at the Parker River Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, she has never once been bitten by a greenhead fly. Even more implausible was her promise that she could teach me her secret — how to love greenheads.

“They’re like dogs, they can smell fear,” Adams coached me as we made our way across the parking lot, where the flies had begun attacking me the moment I got out of my car. Amazingly, they were completely ignoring her.

Greenhead fly season did not dissuade this visitor from enjoying views of the dunes at Parker River Wildlife Refuge.
Greenhead fly season did not dissuade this visitor from enjoying views of the dunes at Parker River Wildlife Refuge. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

“You have to try to find your zen,” she said as we reached the beach. She began rattling off the reasons I should love greenheads, as the demonic creatures devoured my lower half.

“They’re the canary in the coal mine; they’re the sign of a healthy marsh,” she said. “They’re also a great food source for the birds. Plus they’re the best plover wardens we have!” (Among her duties is overseeing the human volunteer plover wardens who guard the ends of the town beach and keep people away from the piping plovers that nest on the reservation, a job that typically suffers serious attrition during the month of July.)

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Greenhead boxes help reduce the number of greenhead flies along Plum Island marshes.
Greenhead boxes help reduce the number of greenhead flies along Plum Island marshes. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

I took a deep breath. I tried not to swat the flies feasting on my flesh. And I attempted to be zen, to let love wash over the searing pain.

“Om... Om...,” Adams repeated as I closed my eyes and the flies continued their attack. “You need to be sincere in your belief that greenheads are good. You can’t fake zen.”

For a few calm moments, I tried to make peace with the greenheads. When those eight seconds were over, I returned to making war. Off in the distance, I’m pretty sure I heard a kid say, “That man is trying to beat himself up.”

“No,” Adams shouted in between laughs. “You need to embrace the greenhead for what it is — a great contributor to nature. I’ve only known you for 20 minutes, but I can tell you it serves more of a purpose than you do.”

I respect a good burn and wished I’d had a good comeback in that moment, but my brain doesn’t work very well when it’s lost half its blood. And the truth is that Jean Adams, like her beloved greenhead fly, was unbeatable. Everything she’d said was true. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it with my own eyes, but for whatever reason — zen, love, a deal with the devil — the flies completely ignored her.

Parker River Wildlife Refuge outdoor recreation planner Jean Adams has run the nesting piping plovers program at Plum Island for 22 years and says she's never been bitten by a greenhead.
Parker River Wildlife Refuge outdoor recreation planner Jean Adams has run the nesting piping plovers program at Plum Island for 22 years and says she's never been bitten by a greenhead. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

There was not much left to prove, so I thanked her for the shortest interview of my life, and made a dash for the parking lot.

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“It’s not them, it’s you,” she declared, and who was I to argue?

“But I do want to thank you for feeding them. You really are a good source of greenhead food.”


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.