www.Nightskyhunter.com www.Nightskyhunter.com

Cabin Tree Star Trails & Moonlit Causeway Cliff Aurora Display - November 7th 2017

On Sunday November 5th 2017 I was spending a relaxing afternoon with Roisin and her Dad at her parent's home, the atmosphere was calm and serene and as I glanced out the window I could see the clouds breaking and for once it looked like a rare clear night was imminent. I wanted to shoot a star trail, I double checked the forecast which confirmed my hopes, clear skies for the first part of the night with the first frost of the season for inland areas before high level cloud would arrive later ahead of the next frontal system. Since I was visiting I didn't want to go far so I chatted with Roisin and her Dad about local foreground which could work with a star trail, we all sat around the table throwing out ideas, I requested that the subject matter be clutter-free with no tall trees or power lines around it, it would have to be assessable and the most photogenic part of it would need to face W as the rising moon would be in the E, then Roisin suggested the old tree in the village of Doss, I had heard of that and may have seen one or two images of this famous local tree doing the rounds but I never knew it was close to us, I learned more as Roisin and her Dad provided me with more details, it sounded like exactly what I was looking for, it was different and a location in which I had never shot before, we noticed that the sun was 10 degrees above the SW horizon so we had some daylight left to do a recce so all three of us jumped in the car and drove a mile or so across county roads and arrived on the shore of Lough Neagh.

The light was waning fast and so was the temperature, the tree looked beautiful and atmospheric with great structure which would lend itself well for night photorgaphy. As we admired the view the owner of the field in which the tree stood arrived to see what we were doing, as it turned out the owner knew Roisin's Dad very well and once we explained our intentions, and my night star trail idea, he was more than happy to give me permission to go ahead. In the chilly dusk sky I climbed into the field and took a few underexposed 10mm hand held shots, the light was too low however I just wanted to see how it looked in the frame, I was happy and couldn't wait to return once again at nightfall.

We went back to Roisin's parents house to warm up, had a nice mug of tea and snacks then I waited until darkness, in no time the waning moon began to rise in the E. I grabbed the gear, informed Roisin I could be two hours, then drove out the now dark country roads and from memory I found my way to the correct location, pulled onto the grass verge and went back into the field. I was now face to face with this famous tree, the owner earlier had informed us that it was called 'Cabin Tree' - a rare type of ash 480 years old (another source quoted 600 years) and one of only four of this type in the province - this tree is also known as a fairy tree and is used by fishermen on the lough as a visual aid for piloting their boats back to shore. The conditions were perfect and just as I had visualized them to be, the moon was hanging in the E, one day after full phase during it's perigee approach to Earth so it was large and exceptionally bright, the moon did a perfect job of illuminating the entire scene for me while the clarity of the sky revealed enough stars for a trail. This was the first trail, I filled the 10mm frame with the tree at centre to dominate the composition and began taking 25 sec exposures at ISO800 with my F2.8 lens stopped down to F/4.0 with cable release pressed, I hung around in the moonlight to make sure the exposures were doing their thing then I went back to the car and waited inside as the temperature plummeted, this was the end result after one hour of shooting.

I began a second trail using the same settings, this time with the tree in the rule of thirds and showing more sky, the calm cold air was starting to concern me as mist or frost could form on the lens ruining the night however by pure magic a chilly breeze had formed over the lough and blew onshore keeping the dew at bay yet not strong enough to disturb any of the branches, there wasn't a cloud in sight the entire time, I couldn't have asked for better star trail weather, I stopped the camera after 3/4 of an hour as I had to make my way back however I was well pleased with the results. Beautiful, stark, eerie, and rich in history all captured on a sublime cold night at Lough Neagh, I headed back to Roisin with the heater on and enjoyed one more well deserved brew just as the first hints of high level cloud arrived head of the next front, the timing was perfect, I will be back again another time as I know Cabin Tree has amazing photogenic potential.

Meanwhile over the weekend I had been planning another photo shoot for Tuesday the following week, that night was also forecast to be clear and with a waning gibbous moon four days after full it would provide perfect light for a location hotographer Nigel McFarland and I had wanted to shoot for some time along the Co. Antrim coast, I admit that I had been excited by it all weekend, especially with the promise of clear skies which have been so rare this season. On Tuesday morning plans confirmed the shoot was on, however as the afternoon crept closer we were beginning to have weather concerns. Yes the Met Office and Met Eireann were giving clear skies, however they were also giving fog which may hamper our shoot, add to this the high resolution models showing showers over the coast and cloud arriving from 20.00 and remaining for the rest of the night, a look at SAT 24 confirmed these fears with a massive area of high level and mid level cloud coming in from the W/NE ahead of the next front, what shocked us was just how fast it was moving on the satellite imagery, at that rate it would indeed be over us by 20.00, and with moon rising at 19.27 it looked like we may not have enough time to get shooting at all, for a while we considered shooting inland instead and after that the entire shoot was in jeopardy, we were close to calling it off, our hearts sank.

After much thought I decided the shoot was going ahead, I would hit the coast anyway and take advantage of that one clear hour before the cloud rolled in, and not only that if there where showers there then there could be dramatic moonbows to shoot, furthermore NOAA had forecast a G1 storm tonight from a CIR solar wind stream event, we never expected much to happen from this as this season they seem to be producing glows on the horizon and not much else due to a Bz which seemed to want to stay N, however knowing there was a slight chance was the icing on the cake, this I decided was validation enough for a good photo shoot. I packed a flask and a few snacks, checked back online and saw a lot of excited chat, the aurora was suddenly going crazy, the Bz was -20!!!, held south, shot N, then back S again to -12, this was not expected at all, when the Bz is this far south you can be sure a significant aurora was happening, it took us all off guard, including NOAA, however would it last?, exciting as it was I expected it to go back N again, but with cloud in mind Nigel and I decided to leave earlier than planned with an ETA for 17.45 at the Causeway.

I arrived at the Causeway at dusk to a deep blue promising looking sky, there was no sign of that cloud on the SAT images at all, in fact, it looked like it was going to stay clear for quite some time, the Met Office had gave 15mph winds here however there was just a gentle breeze, it was this great reduction in wind which may have slowed the front and associated cloud, either way it looked to be working to our favor and I was already feeling glad I had trusted my instincts and continued with the shoot. I grabbed a quick brew then Nigel arrived and together we climbed a hill and had a look out over the sea, it was deep twilight with the first stars of the night and the sky still looked perfect, just a scattering of showers far away on the horizon which were non threatening, we chatted for a while then began to notice that the twilight sky looked suspicious, almost as if there was an aurora there, but it was probably wishful thinking, we walked back to the vans and decided to drive on to our original location which would be a 15 minute drive along the coast, we pulled out and after 15 seconds Nigel stopped his van, I stopped beside him and asked what was the matter, he said he had just got online and the Bz was -16, we looked at each other and immediately abandoned our shoot location, the Bz was simply to good, there was a big aurora happening and we needed to get a spot now, there was no time to drive around looking, so we quickly parked again, gathered our tripods and camera bags then made our way uphill in the direction of the cliffs above the Giant's Causeway.

We turned around to begin our ascent and there was a massive aurora visible straight in front of us!!!, we literally couldn't believe it, the entire visible sky was glowing vividly with a huge arc shaped apparition dominating the sky, we rushed up hill panting for breath, we had no time to cherry pick foreground so we literally reached the edge of the cliff and set up or tripods in seconds. We where in the zone, cameras on tripods, focus check, then began taking exposures with the 10mm F/2.8, you know you have a good aurora when you can't fit in a 10mm frame and when you can see it through the camera's viewfinder clear as day, we were shocked how bright the display was, there was no question that the Bz was very negative, the solar wind particles were racing along Earth's magnetic field lines at 600-700 km/sec, this was the aurora of the year, no it was the best aurora of the last few years, the ocean was glowing under its luminosity, there was that much going on all over the sky it was difficult to know where to point the camera. I began shooting in sections, this is N to NE taking in only half of the aurora.

I panned the camera to the left facing due N and took another exposure, the aurora looked like a green rainbow back lighting the distant shower clouds, yet again everything was perfection, we had a stunning aurora, the sky was dark, the moon wouldn't rise for over an hour and the sky was completely clear, furthermore we where standing on a cliff looking across the famous Causeway and a breeze had picked up stopping any mist forming on our lenses, and to top it off we were in fine form, previous to this we had been doing a lot of night shooting and star trail sessions and because of this we were extremely sharp, there was no hesitation, no mistakes, the cameras were in action within seconds, it was second nature.

The arc intensified further becoming the brightest I have seen in years, so bright in fact that all the stars from the horizon to 15 degrees in altitude were washed from the sky including bright mag +2 stars which was rather exceptional. In my short 20 second exposures the aurora almost looked photo shopped, that's how vibrant it was. To the NE above the easternmost sector of the arc you can see the Hyades, Pleiades, Auriga and Perseus. Far below us was the magnificent Giant's Causeway coastline, headlands, and stacks with the ocean lit by the exceptional ambient light from the aurora.

We decided to immediately shoot a time lapse, 20 second exposures, ISO1600 with lens wide open at F/2.8, click....20 seconds...click...and so on, this was a great feeling as now the camera was faithfully taking images while Nigel and I stood back and had the luxury of taking in the sky visually without having to worry about camera settings and compositions, sometime when shooting the sky you can miss the best of if by tinkering with camera absurdities and affecting your dark adaption, however in this situation we had a rare chance to absorb the scene, observe every detail, savor every breath of sea air and watch the dynamics of this ever changing natural light show unfold, I enjoyed this moment, it reminded me of my earlier observing years watching great auroras long before our first digital cameras were ever dreamed of. We were astonished to witness this extremely rare three tier arc with the naked eye, I had never seen three tiers before in almost 20 years of aurora watching, and on the image it looks more like four tiers with new auroral forms rapidly appearing aloft, this was nore like the type of structure one sees in aurora displays at more northern latitudes and indicative of a very dynamic event, at this same moment astrophotographers in Scotland were capturing six tiers.

The aurora went even more crazy with higher elevation forms manifesting and evolving in real time, large ovals and elongated patches were being evoked in front of our very eyes by the unseen hands of our magnetosphere being stretched and buckled by high speed solar wind particles as they excited the high atmosphere generating energetic phantom forms, at one stage I counted five different ovals side by side all exhibiting real time motion.

The sky to our W above Donegal was going crazy with these elongated glows however we couldn't pan our cameras to the left as we were already committed to a time lapse so we enjoyed it visually. At a first glance we thought it was sections of cloud which had drifted in however upon further scrutiny we realized with delight that it was aurora, it was like an invisible hand with paint brush at work using the sky as a canvas. These upper level forms where 40 degrees high (80 full moon diameters) and bright enough to wipe out mag +4 stars as seen with the naked eye. We commented out loud on what we were seeing with awe, it was exciting, we were in the zone, we were witnessing something very special. I sent a few text messages to tip a few others off just in case they didn't know, my Wife Roisin, John McConnell, Paul Martin, John Fagan, - Roisin wished she could have been here to see it, John Fagan was already out watching the show from Dugannon, Paul Martin was already making his way out to the countryside near Omagh, and John McConnell was grabbing his camera heading to a quiet stretch of road near Maghaberry. My phone starting going mad with texts however it got to the stage were I had to ignore them so I could enjoy the remainder of this unexpected sky show.

Tall rays were strangely absent from this display, we observed an array of shorter beams however they were largely embedded inside the lower arc, they seemed to be sitting at the back of the stage allowing these strange ovals to steal the show. You can see three of these ovals above, all three where moving laterally across the sky from W to E from Ursa Major into Auriga. You can even see a strange oval spot between the arc and middle oval within the upper sector of Lynx and surrounded by a red haze, this reminded me a brighter version of the Gegenschein.

The Bz was once again bouncing from S to N and back again, when it went N the aurora seemed to reduce in brightness however a red colour above the green began to become more dominant, I could see the green easily with the naked eye (others reported white or pastel colours) and with a little concentration I could make out the subtle red colour visually also. After more than an hour of this beautiful show the aurora waned in brightness and dropped lower in the sky in correspondence to a changing Bz, the IMF was N however it was still negative so the aurora remained and always had the potential to return in full splendor once again at any time during the night. The green arc took on the form of a strange double bump like two green mountains above the ocean horizon, I called them Camel humps, something I had never seen before either so this was very much a night of new sights and surprises, as the big forms vanished we stopped our exposures and caught our breaths.

Aurora star trail made from a selection of the exposures taken during this time lapse shoot, there where several photographers below on the Causeway rocks shooting the show using their head torches a lot as you can see on the image. The moon had rose in the E and the sky began to brighten, this was our cue to move on across the top of the cliffs in search of new locations.

An hour and a half later and the moon was well up and doing its job perfectly, or plan was to use it's light to shoot moonlit landscape scenes with stars however much to our delight the aurora simply refused to go away and although it was the shadow of its former itself the arc seemed to grow stronger and could clearly be seen to the naked eye even in a bright moonlit sky, this was icing on the cake for the remainder of our shoot. Nigel and I did a lot of walking along these dramatic but dangerous cliffs, the walk was treacherous in places due to wet grass and mud which caused us to slip at times, some of these areas are close to where the cliff drops off into space, so we had to go at a slow pace and double check our surroundings with the head torch. When we reached our destination we didn't find the foreground or scene we wanted and the angle wasn't in our favor however it was the way back which was much more productive, the moon was now higher and the coastline was painted by its surreal light making for great photo opportunities, we stopped many times during our trek to shoot scene after scene. We carefully crept across the long grass and got set-up and shot the moon above with aurora and coastline, the long shadow of the headland was projected across the sea.

There's nothing better than sitting in the grass on these dramatic cliffs among the moonlight and shadows with nobody else around and the only sound was from the ocean rumbling far below. The auroral arc seemed to intensify even more, we suspected the Bz was stirring again, look how vibrant green the band is, glowing with pride despite the lunar glare. It was difficult to shoot here because the grass so so thick and spongy, the tripod legs didn't want to bed so the camera would shake during the exposures, at first I held the legs steady with my hands which didn't work, then finally I just sat back, didn't move, and let the tripod settle, then took my exposure slowly with the cable release, that seemed to work.

We hiked further along the cliff, I hadn't planned on stopping here as I was still moving however I saw several beams appear within the arc so nature decided for me, I ventured over to the cliff edge and got set-up. I instantly liked what I saw, the ambience here was perfect, green aurora, moon, dramatic 50 million year old coastline and the moonlit surf glowing white, if you look on the cliff top you can see Nigel with tripod set up in action providing a great sense of scale, this image turned out to be my favourite of the night.

Deep crop showing Nigel concentrating intensely during his exposure, the bright star above him is the super red giant Betelgeuse in Orion, a star which Astronomers believe could erupt as a bright Supernova at any moment, what a scene it would have been if it had went supernova over this scenery. In 1572 a supernova suddenly appeared in Cassiopeia breaking up the well known 'W' shaped constellation, this 'guest star' was so bright it rivaled planet Venus and was observed in daylight, it's also known as Tycho's star because of Tycho Brahe's detailed observations and measurements of its behavior, imagine such a sight if one of these erupted today.

Same scene without Nigel, there's nothing better than the sight of waves lit by moonlight. Looking down from here I could see big breakers rolling in and with my dark adapted eye the waves and surf looked incredibly bright and vivid white under the moon, it really was some sight, one of those special quiet moments to yourself out in nature.

A few 100m further along the cliff we stopped again as the aurora was waking from its sedate slumber, several vertical rays punctuated the northern sky on the E side of the arc, we had no real foreground here so we just shot from the cliff edge, nice convective shower clouds crossed the horizon below the aurora lit obliquely by the moon, no good composition was to be had here however this was simply an image included for the memory.

Nigel captured this exposure of me in the moment shooting the aurora with those beautiful moonlit shower clouds, I was hoping for a rare image of aurora with a moonbow however the showers where too distant, none of the precip would reach these shores until later in the morning, still what a great memory, thanks Nigel for sending me this one.

A couple of hundred meters worth of foot steps later and the aurora suddenly goes into one more outburst, we rush over to yet another cliff edge and get shooting rite away. The green arc was so bright it was almost neon, fine beams inside it could be seen cutting through the moonlit cloud like a knife through butter, higher up tall red rays speared the Great Bear reaching 50 degrees high, the aurora made the moonlight look shameful, it was staying on centre stage tonight regardless of luna. We began shooting a time lapse expecting a lucky bonus show however after five minutes the beams vanished and the band faded, however there was no ill feelings from us, the aurora had put on a brief but fine show which produced a new bounty of images to take home.

After a lot of walking and a lot of shooting we made our way back to the car park, had a well deserved brew and a few snickers bars were devoured, we needed the energy. The aurora had all but vanished however before we called it a night we decided to head to the bottom of the Causeway and take a few exposures of the famous rocks, it would be a shame not to. The moon was brilliant, and big breakers thundered to shore threatening the rocks upon which we stood, the rocks were slippery and dangerous so we were careful once again, we managed quite a few exposures to document the night, this one was my favourite with the waves forming a smooth white mist over the rocks with the aperture stopped down two clicks and a long exposure used, this I decided would be my final image of the night.

A time lapse montage composed of various short time lapse sequences captured over the last few months, this aurora, aurora at Ballintoy church, wind turbines, derelict house on Glenshane Pass, Benbradagh and Lough Fea, Cabin Tree at Lough Neagh and moonlit Causeway cliffs, each individual clip is short however they all took countless hours out on cold nights to capture with the DSLR. I made it home this night for 01.30 and what a successful night it was, one of those nights when everything falls into place, perfect clear skies, major aurora, moonlit coastalscapes, exercise, fresh air and new images to showcase, now that's what I call a productive shoot, thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

Sky Events Now

Observing Sessions

Storm Chasing