Get out of the way dung spreader! - it was April 9th 2015 and Roisin and I were driving swiftly along the Omagh road outside Cookstown heading SW. The weather had been glorious with over a week of high pressure weather which brought with it an abundance of blue skies, warmth and blazing sunshine. Roisin and I had been at my Dad's house enjoying our first BBQ of the season and while we ate I kept monitoring the sky through the living room window to see if there was potential for a nice sunset, I had been on alert for the last few days however the sky had been too 'clean' so my thinking was that after several days of warmth and slack winds the transparency of the sky should reduce somewhat with a layer of haze or murk low in the sky which was the kind of natural filter I needed for a beautiful sunset. After desert another look through the glass had confirmed my suspicions, tonight was going to be the night, I could see the solar disk fairly easily with the naked eye and I knew that once it dropped towards the horizon we could be in for a nice photo opportunity. There would be no time to let the food digest for sunset was at 20.15 UT and we had 20 min's to find a good location so we grabbed the gear and hit the road, I knew the sky would deliver but would we get there in time?. We needed a clear unobstructed horizon for a decent view and the Omagh road was the best location for that so we made tracks, got held up in traffic in town for 10 min's, then made it onto the open road, this was on a knife edge, the sun would be setting in another ten min's so all we had to do was find a place to pull over which offered us a good open view of the sky.
Just when everything was going to perfection we met a line of slow moving traffic, oh nooooo, this could cost us the sunset, other cars managed to get ahead when there was a gap in the oncoming traffic however when it came to our turn we couldn't take a chance due to bends and dips in the road and we ended up crawling at 15 mph behind a tractor towing a heavy dung spreader, I cursed with impatience and frustration however I couldn't give up yet as there was still time. I realised we were not going to get past so I said to Roisin that was I was going to take the next right option as soon as one appeared, soon a narrow side road presented itself to us and we took it and left behind that traffic cue and entered the wonderful free world of the country road, I saw Kildress church on the left so we pulled in there. Amazingly for us the church was built on a hill overlooking the Co. Tyrone countryside and the view was spectacular and much better than we could have hoped for. We got out beside the church and looked across the graveyard and beyond was a vast countryside of fields all the way to the W and NW horizon, I smiled with joy and triumph, it was one of those times when you know it was meant to be. The sun lowered into a bank of haze in the W and it turned spectacular with a yellow disk surrounded by a small section of cirrus clouds which turned crimson red. I set-up the tripod and attached the Canon 100-400mm USM lens and began taking images and segments of HD video with the intention of making a sunset time lapse, Roisin was getting spectacular images using her camera phone even at wide angle with the dark forms of two tall trees against the warm skyline which looked like a scene straight from Africa.
The sun could be observed visually with great comfort, Roisin and I watched it morph from a disk into an irregular form due to the effects from turbulence (seeing) and atmospheric extinction. The atmosphere around us with both awesome yet peaceful as we watched this spectacle in the warm evening light with the sound of a distant unseen lawn mower and the singing birds in the tree branches above us for company.
This is a deep crop from a 400mm frame showing the disk about to drop below the horizon with a farmer's barn on the horizon. There was a large sunspot visible on the meridian too which added to the experience. We watched as the northern crown vanished from view without a green flash then packed up and began the drive back to Cookstown. Roisin and I agreed it had been a wonderful sunset to experience from the church grounds and well worth the effort, funny thing is had that tractor and dung spreader not been blocking the road then we would never have taken that right option and would very well have missed the sunset or found a bad location for photography which just goes to show that it's important to see everything has a sign from the universe, just when you think you are being held back you are actually being re-directed towards something even greater.
Dusk, April 11th, it was a quiet Saturday evening and the sky was overcast with grey clouds and the light was falling fast. Roisin and I had just finished a nice walk in the fresh air through the Cookstown countryside and were in the process of driving back when Roisin spotted a large fox at the top of a field, my goodness he was a beauty and healthy looking with vibrant golden-orange fur and walking across the field in a slow manner which gave the impression that he owned the place. I wanted to get an image but the light was low and I wondered if it was worth the effort however Roisin encouraged me not to give up yet so I found an open gate to the field and drove in nose-first and parked expecting the fox to run however he stood his ground so I got the camera and 100-400mm lens then walked across the field a little and snapped a few images, at 400mm and handheld I had to ISO up to 3200 with a slow shutter speed which made shooting extremely challenging, however I got a few images before he vanished from view behind the brow of the hill, he simply disappeared into the lush green grass, Roisin was rite, it was worth the effort, OK it's not a great image (cropped in deeply) however I still got a result.
During this period I had been craving one last big aurora display for soon the Spring aurora season would come to an end, in fact, I speculated that it could well be over by the end of April, the reason being that it takes a long time to get dark and darkness itself disappears until we are left with an intense twilight glow which will be the main thing during the months ahead, this bodes well for Noctilucent cloud season however for the northern lights its a killer, one needs a dark sky background to see the aurora at its best and with a waxing moon phase I felt the rush stronger than ever, if we didn't get a decent aurora soon then we could have to wait until the next season from late August onward with Autumn being prime time. However to get an aurora one needs a trigger mechanism in the form of either a solar wind stream, CME or negative tilting Bz however the sun was strangely quiet, it even sported several large spots capable of X-class flares however the spots behaved themselves. In the meantime we were experiencing a great run of clear nights and a photo shoot was needed and to coincide with that great fortune was the news from NOAA that a fast moving solar wind stream would disturb our magnetosphere late on April 15th, spaceweather scientists were even going for a minor G1 storm so it looked like we would get our last chance of seeing the aurora after all.
I arranged a photo shoot with good friend Conor McDonald who was up for a combined photo shoot and aurora hunt. Conor and I have been observing the sky for a very long time together and have watched countless auroras over the years long before we ever had digital cameras and have experienced crazy observing sessions in the past which to this day I still find hard to believe, Conor had been living in another country for five years and now he was back so this felt like one of those old times all over again and we couldn't wait to get out. The auroral oval was green with yellow enhancements all evening and looked good however the Bz hovered around 0 and even flirted into the positive however based on the oval alone we knew we had a good chance of seeing something. We met at 21.15 then hit the road N, the Antrim coast was a possibility as this kind of aurora required a darker sky and a location as far north as possible to be seen at its best however we were concerned by any chat on social media sites which could attract the crowds to the coast and countless photographers who would get in each other's way so we decided to shy away from that area for the time being with the intention of hitting there later if needed, I figured with it being a week night and only a solar wind stream then we might get lucky enough.
We wanted to try something different so we decided to check out the huge wind farm in Limavady. We pulled into a dark side road facing the complex and climbed over the gate and walked into the fields, it was quite a cool sight I have to say and the sight of all those windmills against the dark twilight sky was quite spectacular in its own way. Each wind turbine had a red light on top so all we could see were dozens of huge metal machines rotating with red lights glowing among the early stars. We took images for a while then ventured further along the path into the darkness, we came across a mobile hut and car, then stopped, ooohh dear, it suddenly dawned on us that we might be somewhere we shouldn't and that we may have been trespassing (there were no signs saying as such), then a dark figure emerged from the mobile and ventured across the yard then our paths crossed, we made ourselves known by calling out and letting the figure know we were there and that we meant no harm, as it turned out it was the security guard in the course of an all-night watch, we introduced ourselves and shook his hand and explained that we were photographers after the aurora, as it turned out he was a very decent guy and believed our story. We invited us into the mobile, asked us to sign our names in the log book then let us wander off under the turbines to take images no problem at all, well that worked out well. Here's the wind farm when darkness fell at 22.30 UT at 10mm with Venus and the Pleiades on view to the left and the northern horizon glowing purple form the aurora which had just emerged into view as twilight waned, we could see with visually as a glow in the sky and even picked out several purple rays to the right. After some time of watching the security returned to warn us about the deep ditches in the dark then he became intrigued by what we were doing so I showed him a few images including several images of the beams we had just observed and he seemed genuinely interested, Conor gave him the low down about auroras and how amazing they can be so the atmosphere was good. We decided we needed to change location because the red lights were messing with the exposures, once again the security guard was kind to us and drove us back to the gate to the waiting van.
We entered Coleraine and got two McFlurrys at McDonalds and relocated to Downhill beach where got out and watched the sky while we finished our refreshments. There was a faint aurora glow low in the sky so I set up the camera and let it take stills for star trails/time lapse and left the camera alone while Conor and I watched the faint aurora wondering if it would liven up. Magnetic midnight passed and it seemed like the aurora was a dude, perhaps the Bz was N again but we knew from experience that auroras can change at any moment so we watched and watched. A car arrived onto the beach behind us and the owner walked out towards us, it turned out to be none other than Neil Moroney - a well known aurora photographer - so all three of us stood on the beach watching the stars chatting about photography and the night sky. This seemed like a very long wait with not much happening so we used the time to have several warm brews from the flasks and ended up chatting about all our old observing sessions from the past - auroras, meteors, fireballs, comet hunting, satellites and so much more, I have to say I really enjoyed this moment for even though the sky was quiet it felt wonderful to be standing out under the stars talking about past adventures and for a while it felt like we were once again back re-living those nights once more.
After 01.00 the aurora suddenly camera to life in the form of a weak outburst just when we were all thinking of calling it a night, numerous slow moving beams gently moved across the sky to the N and NW, Neill spotted a beauty over Donegal in the form of a slanting ray feature some 20 degrees high. I had to capture this moment for the memory so Conor and I jumped in the frame during the middle of the outburst while we watched Heavenly beams wax and wan among the stars of Perseus, Cassiopeia and Auriga while bright Capella winked reminding us that NLC season was on the way. Even though this was not a spectacular aurora it was quite beautiful in its own way, perhaps because it was a late bloomer and that it appeared after a long wait, this way we felt like we had earned the aurora and its presence seemed all the more special with just the three of us watching. We arrived back in Maghera for 03.30 and I didn't get to bed until 05.30 building star trails (which I never ended up using) then by that stage sleep was impossible and I simply didn't get any, however had I known what was in store the following night I might have tried that little bit harder to get some sleep as I would end up needing every ounce of energy I could find.
I was not feeling well on the morning of April 16th due to virtually no sleep at all and suffering the effects a cold or flu affecting me however there would be no time for sleep as another photo shoot was being organised. During the late afternoon Omagh photographer and good friend Paul Martin and I began chatting about plans for tonight, a week earlier we had arranged to meet up on Friday however the skies were just great and it would be a shame to let them go to waste so we decided to move our arranged shoot several days forward and make it happen tonight instead. Just as we were making arrangements I noticed the auroral oval growing in size and intensity with yellow colours which was quite surprising because no decent activity was expected at all tonight as the previous night was the main event. 15 min's later I checked the aurora sites and was shocked to see that NOAA had extended their geomagnetic storm watch for another 72 hours!, I was taken back by this somewhat because after all, this was just a solar wind stream, I honestly didn't expect much from it and discussed the news with Paul. We agreed it was an added bonus and a good omen for our planned shoot tonight, our plan was to do night landscape photography and star trails and perhaps if we were lucky we might get a faint glow on the horizon. After a great deal of thought we decided that we would try a location further south in Co. Fermanagh called Monea castle which resides deep in the countryside near Derrygonnelly on the S side of Lower Lough Erne. We have both visited this location before in daylight and on the night of March 11th 2014 we had an amazing all-night moonlit photo shoot at this castle (report) which was one of the night sky highlights of the year, there is something special about this castle which is difficult to express in words, Paul and I both felt a very positive energy from the location and made note of the compass points and star positions relative to the castle, it was perfect for aurora, in fact, the aurora had never been photographed from this location before - ever - so we marked it as a location to return to when there was potential for an epic aurora, a low aurora wouldn't do it due to trees and hills so we had to save Monea castle for a truly special event. Of course no epic auroras were anticipated this night so we decided to treat this shoot as a test night and if we were lucky then maybe a faint auroral glow would be detected on camera so we can refine our compositions and return again on a future date for that big display.
All was looking good for our photo shoot anyway so I packed the gear into the van, made up several flasks of tea and checked the weather forecast which gave a clear night with a risk of frost inland so all was good, that is until I looked at the satellite images. Oh dear, a large streamer of cloud was in the process of moving across N. Ireland and it was cloudy over most of the country, in my backyard I could see a large bank of cirrostratus and altocumulus, Paul and I exchanged our concerns about this cloud which was extremely slow moving and at one stage we almost called the night off entirely so we studied SAT24 one last time. I noticed that the cloud streamer was moving slowly N and E, there where clear skies above it to the N and clear skies below it to the S, at its current motion we realised the chances were good it would be clear over Fermanagh once darkness arrived, outside it looked awful however we had to trust the satellite imagery so we decided to make our move and just go for it. I left Maghera then as I was passed over the Omagh road there was an impressive sunset show, those cirrus clouds were shaped into a huge wedge of cloud which looked like an orphan anvil and the blue tinted altocumulus above looked similar to mammatus, at the horizon the setting sun cast the bottom of the wedge into a strong red-pink glow while shafts of orange sunlight shot skyward into the clear blue air adjacent to the clouds, it was a nice sight and would have made for a great capture with my 10mm lens however I let it go as time was pressing, the remainder of the trip was under overcast skies which made me extremely nervous however I kept reminding myself...''trust the satellite''...''trust the satellite''.
I met Paul in Omagh and it was clear Paul was concerned about the cloud too, we were under overcast skies however a glimmer of hope was visible to the S in the form of a narrow clear strip which was in the direction we where heading so we remained resolute with our decision and headed S into Co. Fermanagh in Paul's 4x4. The cloud situation was still bad and only a couple of stars were on view so we were in no mad rush, that was until Conor rang us from Maghera and informed us that the aurora oval had gone blood red and the IMF was south, I could tell that it must have been big otherwise Conor would never have rang us, also Conor doesn't get excited by sky action easily unless its major so I knew that this was something significant, Conor was heading out to shoot the aurora in the countryside near home and wished us luck. Paul and I looked it each other and smiled with delight, we had never expected this to happen, a major aurora was happening rite now and we were only 10 min's away from Monea castle, this was the chance we had been waiting for, it wasn't happening sometime in the future, it was happening rite now!
We arrived at Monea castle with our adrenaline pumping, we grabbed the camera gear and kit bags and together we walked into the darkness and got into position on the S side of the castle facing N and NW and let our eyes adjust. There was still a lot of broken cloud with small clear gaps however we could see that the entire sky was glowing with the naked eye, there was no question there was aurora there and a quick exposure with the camera showed a purple glow in the sky. This was it, we recomposed our cameras taking test exposures and waited while watching the sky, we just needed the clouds to part and for the aurora to go into out burst, if we could get a couple of rays over these ruins we would be delighted. I had the Canon 600D tripod mounted with Samyang 10mm F/2.8 lens and my composition worked out, I was ready. We were blown away by the magnitude of Venus which lit the clouds up from behind, it was almost like a lighthouse from this dark location, with time the clouds started to slowly break and we noticed that the green glow on the horizon was climbing higher, it was only a matter of time before something happened, we could feel it in the atmosphere, our spirits were high and there was a palpable sensation that we were in the rite place at the rite time and that nature was going to put on a show. Here's a memory shot of Paul taking test images with his Canon 6D and Samyang 14mm F/2.8 lens, the blue light is from his head torch, the purple and green colours in the sky were from the aurora which was intensifying by the minute.
Then after magnetic midnight the clouds parted and the sky went crazy and the aurora went into a terrific outburst and within min's it had turned into a G2 geomagnetic storm which once again far surpassed the highest expectations of NOAA forecasters. The next 15-20 min's was the finest I have experienced during this aurora season, a succession of vertical rays shone skyward like searchlight beams to the NW and suddenly we were getting our dream images of the aurora beside Monea castle, we couldn't believe this was happening - tonight of all nights.
The storm intensified even further with rays reaching 40 degrees high (80 full moon diameters), to the naked eye they looked like vivid ghostly shafts of light which slowly meandered across the sky from L to R in a sublime dance, this was the greatest show on Earth, Paul was to my right five meters away in the darkness taking exposures and loving every second of the show, we yelled at the sky, shouting and commenting on what we were seeing, there seemed to be none stop beams, once a formation moved eastward a new formation would begin in the west. When we looked at our LCD screens we were blown away by the intense pink colours the camera had detected, ''holy cr*p'', these were some of the richest aurora colours we have ever captured on camera, the pinks and purples were simply unbelievable. It was such an epic scene with this beautiful castle dominating the sky with this incredible aurora behind, it really doesn't get any better than this.
The dissipitating altocumulus clouds aloft looked wonderful as they framed the aurora while adding a sense of contrast and dimension to the scene, sometimes a little cloud can be a good thing. It was awesome to see the pink glow through the top windows of the castle and much to our amazement the searchlight beams became more widespread, not just to the L of the structure but where no moving behind and producing beams above the castle turrets.
I don't think I have ever seen such a pink sky before in my life, we were really getting an incredible show rite now, Paul and I took non stop exposures while at the same time watching the show visually. There was no question this was the best aurora of the entire season and in our opinion it was considerably more impressive than the St. Patrick's night aurora, although the latter was notable for its rapid motion, great height and corona it was sorry in comparison to this vibrant beauty, the March 17th aurora was a great visual show however this one was an extremely photogenic spectacle and the fact that it took us by surprise made it even better.
As if the aurora couldn't get any better the searchlights appeared to the far R side until the entire castle was engulfed by the aurora with angelic beams either side of this amazing structure with the windows on all three levels showing pink.
We moved to the front of the castle for a different perspective with the aurora adjacent to the twin cylindrical towers. This location was pitch black, don't be deceived by the distant yellow glow of light pollution in the images, believe me this was proper dark with the naked eye, the castle is located in deep countryside and surrounded by acres of rolling fields with Cattle, we had to watch where we were going all the time, at one stage I was kneeling down taking exposures and I was certain I had just knelt deep into a large Cow pat!, however it was a dry one (thanks high pressure!) and I didn't even care as the aurora was so amazing.
The show began to fade however there were still tall pink and purple rays which would manifest in ghostly fashion at unpredictable moments. Since it was new moon our surroundings were dark so that mean little in the way of detail in the castle walls could be shown on camera, however we did use our head torches to lightly 'paint' the walls during the exposures which you can see on several of the images, I actually rather like this dark outline of Monea against the stars, I think it captures the moment well.
As the aurora subsided I did the first of two star trails on continuous shooting, 30 sec's, ISO1600 at F/2.8 and left the camera to do it's thing. Our camera bags were covered in frost and sparkling, however due to all the excitement we didn't realise how cold it had got, now we were feeling it. Here's the first star trail result with purple and pink aurora glow still evident in the sky, check out the bank of mist hovering over the field.
We stared a second star trail and left the cameras alone in the darkness and headed back to the 4x4 where Paul used a gas stove to boil fresh water for a badly needed brew and snacks. When we returned to the cameras the lenses were misted over and the aurora was gone which signaled the end of our photo shoot. This last star trail was hindered by mist and dew however I did catch this bright Iridium flare near Polaris. What a night it was, what a rush and thrill to watch and shoot this wonderful display from nature, however once the adrenaline wore off I felt the immediate effects of the last 44 hours hit me full on, the lack of sleep and growing flu were knocking me out, I suddenly felt exhausted, I was shivering all over and my eyes felt heavy. I don't know how I made the drive home, I pulled over a few times to stretch my legs and kept the windows down for fresh air and being stuck behind a late night lorry helped a great deal as I had something to focus on and keep my attention for miles, however I made it back home for 04.30 and went to bed exhausted but exhilarated, it had been worth the lack of sleep, the 2015 Spring aurora season had went out in style and we were there to capture it all an camera which made the night an absolute success and shooting it from a location which had never been photographed with aurora before made it even more special, our images would be enitrely unique.
This is a time lapse video of the beautiful sunset filmed from Kildress church outside Cookstown using the 600D and 400mm lens with segments of real time footage at the end.
Time lapse footage of the faint aurora outburst at Downhill beach which Conor, Neil and I watched on April 15th, these are the frames I took for a star trail which I then used for a time lapse using the 600D and 10mm lens, I batch edited them in lightroom and saved the file as a slideshow at 34 frames/sec then adjusted the speed using windows movie maker.
Time lapse of the stars over Monea castle in Fermanagh showing the stars rotating around the Pole star at 10mm, there is a hint of aurora in the first section including several beams which I play at different frame rates, again these were the star trail frames and were taken when the aurora was subsiding. It would be nice to have two cameras set up, one for stills and the other for time lapse imagery, it would have been epic to have got a lapse of that stunning outburst. This is likely the end of the Spring aurora season for me and I couldn't be happier, this night alone made the entire season photography-wise, the next time I will be hunting auroras will be during the Autumn season however in the meantime the 2015 Noctilucent Cloud and thunderstorm season beckons so there will be many busy days and nights to come. Thanks very much for reading and thanks to Conor for that all important phone call.