N. Ireland has been experiencing a wonderful period of near record-breaking temps for the time of year thanks to high pressure remaining over the country for several weeks with warm sunshine every single day and clear skies at night which has been remarkable because we usually get one or the other in this country and seldom both when ridging takes place so it was a time to enjoy the heat and catch some much needed rays. Enjoy I did, I spent three days and nights at the north coast of N. Ireland with Roisin where by day we walked along glorious golden beaches at Castlerock and White Park Bay with relentless sunshine and blue skies aloft with not a single cloud in sight.
Temps ranged between 19 and nearly 22 degrees C which made the beach walks surreal because it felt more like June rather than March and at times it felt like being on holiday in another country, in fact the temps in N. Ireland were actually hotter than Spain during this period and Scotland broke it's March temp record for three days in a row with gorse fires breaking out there followed by major fires in Antrim and Down which was far from unexpected in these conditions. Roisin and I covered alot miles walking the coastline during this period which often involved climbing over large boulder fields which made for tough work but brilliant exercise, however the heat was too much for me at one stage so I had to cover my head with a blanket to stop myself from overheating as I was beginning to get a headache and the shivers, I couldn't believe I was experiencing this during March, this same month during 2011 was unsettled, dull, and chilly and during 2010 we had extreme weather with major snow falls, freezing temps, an ice storm, and blizzards which just goes to show how unpredictable the weather in N. Ireland can be.
There were many highlights during the current 'heat wave' for me such as enjoying the pure blue-green ocean and sandy beaches with Roisin, also a memorable picnic at the shore beside the huge rocks near Ballintoy where a local school where teaching their students about geology complete with rock hammers and note books followed by an unforgettable BBQ on the beach at White Park Bay where we cooked burgers and sausages on the sand dunes with a wonderful beach, blue sky, and Runkerry house as our view along with nice ocean sunsets like the image above which was taken from inside the ruins of Dunluce Castle on March 26th.
The night sky was also busy with a fantastic triple conjunction between the crescent moon with earthshine, Venus, and Jupiter which formed an ever-changing celestial triangle in the sky at dusk and for three nights in a row I photographed it from various locations on this famous coastline which was a special experience because Roisin was there to share it with me too. After our BBQ on March 25th we relocated to White Park Bay beach after sunset and as the light faded we walked across the sand to a point half way across the crescent-shaped beach and sat on those strange honeycomb-shaped rocks and took in the majestic conjunction which was peace personified because the night was gentle and still with just a regular calm rumble from the waves lazily licking the sand and as the sky turned black the conjunction came out in all it's glory. The above was taken just as the twilight glow was fading into darkness at that sweet time when the sky looked magical, Roisin 'painted' this derelict building for me during the exposure using a torch which made for a nice foreground with Orion to the upper L and the Hyades, Pleiades, and conjunction to the far R complete with halos around all three bodies.
The 26th was the hottest day I personally experienced in March for many years and with hours spent walking and climbing under such strong sunshine I was getting tired but thanks to Roisin's food preparations and by drinking an abundance of water I managed to say on form, a nice memory was laying on my back on a picnic blanket under the warm rays of the sun and looking up into the blue sky and seeing the crescent moon and planet Venus together in broad daylight during the late afternoon which was a sight to behold, despite seeing Venus like this at intervals over the years it still never ceases to amaze me that a planet can be seen with the naked eye in the middle of the day, and with the blazing sun within the same field of view it seemed even more surreal, I laughed at the thought of getting a sun tan while observing a planet which is something you wont hear very often from an Astronomer who lives a life like an Owl.
As darkness fell on the second night at the coast we drove on around into darker territory and parked at Ballintoy Harbour which is one of my favourite locations however we were not the only ones as there where two other photographers doing the same thing. The sky here was amazing with the stunning conjunction completely dominating the sky along with a very bright afterglow along the N to NW horizon in the form of a white glow (image) above the orange sunset line which persisted for some time which was quite unusual, the effect was likely due to the time of year with the higher altitude of the sun due to the angle of the ecliptic so in effect the sun is less far below the horizon compared to the Winter months and the result is a bright enhancement on the horizon above the sunset point which lingers into darkness, the dust in the atmosphere no doubt added to this effect due to the low humidity and dust was being reported across the country on the roofs of many cars. This twilight glow will get brighter in the months ahead and for me it's always a sign which announces the beginning of the NLC season which typically runs from late May to early August in the northern hemisphere.
While at the harbour we met a lovely couple named John and Edith who happened to be followers of the site and a nice conversation insued about the sky and photography, John was a photographer himself and showed me some of his fine prints portraying the aurora over various locations along this coastline then we had a short photo shoot together where John took a nice image of Roisin and I sitting on the stone benches overlooking the sea with the conjunction above which was very nice of him. Unfortunately we were in a rush so I couldn't stay long this evening so I took the above image of Roark's Kitchen with the conjunction above, note the bright glitter path on the sea and the glow from the Zodiacal Light extending at an angle from the moon down to the cottage roof. Compare this image to the previous which were separated by 24 hours and you can see the changing position of the moon as it climbed the ecliptic, first it's near Jupiter then Venus, note also that Venus has also moved higher relative to the background stars which is a good example of the solar system in motion. When I look at these planets I always think that if I lived on Venus and looked into the night sky from there then Earth would look very similar as a bright unwinking 'star' which really puts things in perspective.
The following day, March 27th, was yet another stunner with wall to wall sunshine and yet again not a single cloud in the sky however I was feeling tired thanks to many late nights, early mornings, and thanks to all the miles of walking my back and legs muscles were pretty much done and needed a rest including my head and eyes which felt strained from over use. I spent much of the day painting my garden fence with a new coat of wood treatment and during that time I pondered what I would do after dark because the skies were forecast to be clear again and it could be the last decent night before high level cloud would build from the north so this was my last chance for night sky photography. Despite feeling tired I decided that I would most definitely do something however I felt uninspired by the local area and couldn't think of any new ideas so I decided to wait and see and let the universe make the decision for me, and it soon did!. I took a break in the painting and checked the computer and noticed I had a private message on facebook from photographer Paul Martin from Omagh who was asking if I fancied meeting up with him for a phoot shoot, I sure was because there's nothing better than doing photography with someone else who is just as passionate as you so I was feeling energized by the idea, a few messages later and we agreed to head to the coast and see what happens.
Our intention was mainly to go shoot the moon-planet conjunction again because it would be fun to mess around with it over any of the cool locations at the coastline which would be fun in itself so that's pretty much what the plan was, we already decided on Ballintoy Harbour and the surrounding area because of the abundance of awesome foreground. I got the camera gear ready then grabbed a quick chicken burger in a local takeaway then checked the internet once more, it seemed that a high speed solar wind stream was expected to hit either tonight or the following night with a chance of auroras so that had my interest and when I checked the charts I saw that high latitudes were on red alert however mid latitudes were green, the auroral oval was over the tip of Scotland though and with any dip in the IMF/Bz component this might generate an aurora here however it was all very wishy washy and not anything to get excited about so despite only having an hours notice of any potential I wasn't expecting much at all and thought at best Paul and I might just be lucky enough to catch a very faint green glow a few degrees above the horizon which would be nice enough to get on a random night.
Paul arrived in Maghera shortly after 20.00 and together we headed for the Co. Antrim coastline and made it to Ballintoy Harbour just as darkness arrived. The sky was stunning, pitch black, silent and clear with not a cloud in sight so we got dark adapted then walked down to the small beach and began taking test shots of the conjunction for a while as we blended into the darkness and became one with the night. After a while I turned my back on the planets and took an exposure to the N just out of curiosity, I couldn't see anything visually so this was just a random check, then bingo, the camera picked up a very faint glow along the horizon perhaps 5 degrees high with a hint of green, that got my attention but incase it was a fluke effect on the image I took another longer exposure and there it was again looking brighter so I showed Paul and he took an exposure to and that confirmed it, we had an aurora. We then forgot all about the planets and focused our attention on the aurora so we walked on around the shore and got onto higher ground and tried more images. It was obvious the aurora was growing rapidly as now could see it as a faint green band 7 degrees high and the camera picked up an upper red colour and soon it detected faint beams/rays which we began to see with the naked eye with averted vision. The above image is one of many taken at this time showing Paul and I standing in the frame for the memory with the red and green glow from the aurora and several vertical beams to the far R, we were delighted to be even seeing this at all which was an unexpected surprise so we were already on quite a high from the way nature was treating us so far.
The aurora was steady and not fading at all so we decided to take advantage of where we where at and find a good location so we continued walking through the darkness with nothing but weak moonlight and Paul's small head torch to lead the way. The walk we were doing was not something members of the public would do alot, in fact it was well off the beaten track where only ramblers would go because of its challenging and dangerous nature which involved walking on a small dirt path covered in holes and stones with a drop on one side onto a steep rocky beach then the path ended and blended into unmarked territory over fields and hills with crazy sloping angles, we crossed several fences and even through a small stream and a bunch of muddy hoof prints from the local Cows and as we advanced we kept checking the aurora and occasionally stopped to take exposures then carried on. This area had amazing rock formations placed randomly in the sea of huge size which made for an amazing foreground, the rocks were so big I had trouble getting them in the 18mm frame with enough room for the aurora which itself was getting better and better, the auroral band was now an obvious green colour and at times we spotted soft rays appearing and vanishing again above the peak of that rock like a phantom.
The camera picked up this huge diffuse red glow filling the entire wide angle frame so this aurora was undergoing rapid development and we knew it had the potential to go into outburst at any moment, we had no internet access here due to a poor signal and we wondered what the charts were doing however we speculated that the IMF had tilted south and was going up and down like a yo yo. Paul was having a tough time because the mount on his tripod suddenly broke, or more accurately the screw for tightening the tilt of the head had worn out the thread so now the head would tilt downwards due to the weight of the lens so Paul had to carefully balance the camera head at the correct angle to stop this from happening with the risk of slight slippage which could ruin every image and he had to do all this every time we stopped, which was alot, however he had a great positive attitude and succeeded in getting many stunning images. We saw alot of good quality meteor activity too and Paul even caught one on camera above the aurora which was nature's way of rewarding him for his patience.
We had a feeling things were going to kick off again so we walked up a steep slope onto higher ground and began taking more images, you can see the narrow stream running towards the sea. The auroral band suddenly intensified and we sensed an outburst was about to happen so we stayed where we where and watched with anticipation.
Then it happened!, the aurora went into outburst and we began to see vivid beams appearing with a red hue, first a single beam at centre, then another to the far L then we had multiple beams all at once at different locations along the band then after a min or so it faded just as quickly as it began until we were left with nothing more than a very faint band along the horizon which had almost completely gone. We were amazed by what we had seen however we suspected that we could get another outburst at any moment so we decided to move on and find more foreground while it was 'sleeping' because when it awoke again we wanted to be ready for it.
I knew a perfect location which would be ideal for shooting aurora, it was located at the bend along the shore between Ballintoy Harbour and White Park Bay beach and I knew from daylight visits that it would be an absolute perfect place which I have always wanted to try myself, however getting there on foot in the dead of night was very dangerous so it would only be worth doing with someone else for safety reasons so we decided to head there. After leaving the sloping grassland we entered a secluded small beach covered in rocks of all sizes so we had to navigate over those, some of the rocks were very large, irregular, and slippery with seaweed and rock pools at random intervals with the sea itself at the edge but we made it across and turned around to face N where we could see these huge islands of rock jutting out from the sea against the starry night, these rocks are famous, in fact legendary and the kind of scene one often sees in magazines and post cards however having said this there aren't as many images of these formations as there are of other rock formations at this coastline simply because these require more work to get to, there is no parking the car business here, one has to walk over rough ground to get here and it is for this reason that I am certain no one has ever captured an aurora with these in the foreground before so we had a chance of getting original images that have never been seen before, in fact this is what the same location looks like in daylight to help you appreciate its beauty.
Paul and I picked our own spots and set up our tripods on the large rocks which required adjustments to all three tripod legs to get level, I got focused using live view on Venus and framed my image with these 60 million year old rocks in the frame and waited. To my L was the sea which was rising up and down nearby with hardly any noise and to my R was seaweed and more giant rocks with sharp edges and big drops between them so I had to be careful because a sudden slip or lap in concentration could result in a broken leg. Soon we where both set-up and ready and it was as if Mother Nature had been watching us the entire time waiting because as soon as we were prepared it went into a major outburst which was simply jaw dropping!!!, the band suddenly intensified brighter than before then an incredible artillery of vertical beams shot out from the band with intense magnitude and definition, it was unbelievable.
The beams reached 50 degrees high and almost filled the entire 18mm frame and we could see them literally dancing across the stars from L to R while morphing in shape from diffuse forms which suddenly became sharp-edged rays which moved and divided while we looked on with astonishment. We could see the red colour easily with the naked eye which is something I hadn't observed in such a striking manner for many years, the camera picked up stunning green, red, pink and even purple colours associated with the solar wind interacting with and exciting the various elements in our atmosphere at different heights such as oxygen and nitrogen, the greens are lower in the atmosphere and the reds higher. At this stage Paul and I were ecstatic, we were actually shouting at the aurora saying ''OMG'', ''WOW'', ''YESSS'', ''COME ON'', ''HOLY S**T'', ''THAT IS AMAZING'' while cheering and laughing out loud, all our Christmases had come at once!
All this took place around magnetic midnight which is the best time to see an aurora and this one was a great example. This image was taken during the most intense stage of the outburst which boasted remarkable colours on camera with the red upper beams really peeking in colour and seeing this colour with the naked eye with direct vision was beyond description, not just because of the colour, but by being here at such short notice with no plan and little odds of an aurora and then this happened, we simply couldn't believe our luck, we where here by pure chance and I ended up seeing my 95th aurora display, however not only that, this was also the best visual aurora I had seen since Halloween 2005 and the most photogenic aurora I have ever captured since I got a camera and all because of a solar wind stream and a private message from Paul, how things could have been different if the chain of events earlier in the day had been altered and to think that when I was painting the fence earlier I had no idea of what lay in store that night. The funny thing is that I was standing in this exact same spot the previous day under bright sunshine and I was saying to Roisin how this exact skyline faces N to NW and would be the perfect place to get an aurora and I mentioned how I planned to do just that in the future, thinking about it now I can't believe that happened 24 hours later!.
It's moment like this which really validate everything you do and as I watched those dancing beams passing across the star fields of Andromeda, Cassiopeia, and Cygnus I thanked nature for rewarding me because this show supported my entire belief system about nature which goes along the lines of the following, if you show the sky that you are serious, dedicated, faithful, and never ever give up then you will get rewarded when you least expect it and from my own personal experience I know this to be fact. From observing the sky for so long I am also convinced that an observer/photographer must also experience suffering, disappointments, failures, loss of sleep, loss of money, petrol and even your sanity and question why you do what you do and when you experience these thoughts and keep trying then that's when you create a breaking point, it's as if Mother Nature watched then you proved to her that you have earned your rite of passage then you get high rewards from the sky, it's moments like this that I live for!
I feel I have gone through this ritual so many times both as a visual observer and photographer. If you have been reading my Sky Events updates during March then you will have got a taster of this because the biggest outbreak of CMEs/solar flares which produced the best aurora displays of the last 10 years happened a few weeks ago with at least four nights in a row of major geomagnetic storms which would have been amazing from N. Ireland, however these also coincided with the worst cloudy weather and anti-cyclonic gloom I had seen since January 2007 so I missed all of these displays, however it wasn't without trying, one aurora hunt gave me a bad chest infection as well as an eye and ear infection and flu all on the one night with a cough which I am still trying to get rid off, I was bed ridden for three nights and I still drove out to the coast when I should have been in under the covers, I battled with cloud while shivering, sweating, sore, and went through an emotional roller coaster ride of highs and lows, I battled with clouds and frustration, not just during this period but during other drives and watches which others didn't know about and although I got a few glimpses of auroras I never did get a clear sky and good images, I even wrote on the site that ''nature owes me big time'' so I am certain that this aurora was my reward, so thank you nature!.
This was 00.30 in the morning and the outburst was beginning to fade but still visible with fainter red and green colours and isolated beams which came and went like a Banshee among the stars. This image is panned around to the L showing the western most section of the display within Perseus with the moon, Pleiades, and Venus in the same frame, the golden glitter path was beautiful and in the silence which followed the aurora storm I felt completely relaxed and at one with this place, it was utter contentment and I felt overpowering inner peace and a happy glow which underscored everything, there was nowhere else I would rather have been, I love this stuff, and I know Paul was thinking the same thing himself.
We walked back the way we came and stopped half way on our journey to try out a new position Paul seen behind us on very high ground which was essentially a very steep climb up a grassy hill which was tough going on our thighs and lungs, we felt like Bear Gyrlls battling with nature in the dark which was not easy with the weight of camera and tripod in hand however we made it to the top and it was worth it. We were standing on a flat grass ledge at the top of a huge hill with a view across the entire ocean, it felt like we where on top of the world, it was dead calm, silent, and dark with no one else here except us, the sea, and the aurora which was still firing up beams through the thickening murk. Despite the fading aurora I wanted to include this image just for the memory with the beams over the sea, to the R is the red glow from the lighthouse on Rathlin Island in the distance, the faint line on the horizon is the trail of a fishing boat at sea. Out of frame to the L we watched the crisp crescent moon sink into the murk which turned gold with a dream-like gold glitter path at play on the water then finally the crescent turned red and sank below the horizon, after that we just stood watching the sky in silence enjoying the moment.
We made our way back then relocated to outside Portrush where we saw the aurora over Dunluce castle however the murk and ocean mist had thickened considerably and it looked like we had seen the best of the aurora and as a bitter breeze cut through us we decided to call it a night, as if to acknowledge us nature produced a gorgeous fireball directly across the zenith with a green head and long glowing ion train with orange fragments falling in its wake, it was the sky's way of saying farewell and we began the drive back home. We were both tired however our conversation was very animated all the way home as we talked about how amazing this night was, I didn't get home until after 04.00 and I wasn't in bed until 05.30 however it was worth it because this was the best night time photo shoot I had experienced this year so far!.
I made this youtube slide show featuring a selection of images showing the spectacular close conjunction between planets Venus and Jupiter between February and March 2012 and ending with a triple conjunction with the crescent moon and this spectacular aurora display on March 27th. Images taken at various locations in N. Ireland including Maghera, Swatragh, Glenshane Pass, Toome, Antrim Coast, Ballintoy Harbour, White Park Bay Beach, Giant's Causeway, Mussenden Temple and Downhill Estate, I hope you like it. Turn your volume up to get the full experience. Thanks very much for reading.