Moonlit Stone Circles & Star Trails - November 4th 2022

Christmas is almost here and at the time of writing I've had every few night sky photo shoots in recent times due to cloudy weather and other circumstances so I decided that I should cover this fun night on the site. This was one of those photo shoots which was quickly arranged at the last minute, thanks mainly to clear skies, however there would be a bright gibbous Moon visible too but we decided we wouldn't let this put us off and would take advantage of its natural light to illuminate foreground. The Taurid meteor shower was still active and this year a greater number of fireballs were anticipated so that was our other reason for being out.

Paul Martin and I decided to meet at Beaghmore Stone Circles in Co. Tyrone, as soon as we arrived we ventured into the ancient site and got set-up. Our goals were two-fold, we would do a photographic fireball patrol and get one or two good stills of the stones in the process and perhaps a time lapse or star trail if all went well. I decided to shoot N to NW, a region of sky always good for meteors and began shooting 13 second exposures at ISO800 at 15mm wide angle on full frame. The Moon was clear and bright behind us, perfectly placed for lighting the stones with nice shadows cast upon the grass. It was calm and cold and humid so we used our hand warmers on the lenses to keep dew or frost at bay which worked a charm.

I ended up getting a good time lapse and star trail from this sequence, we also saw a borderline Taurid fireball low in the N at mag -4 with a silver tail, I got that one on one of my patrol images however it isn't worth sharing on here as it was small in the wide angle frame. This star trail was made from 50% of the frames taken which turned out rather well. If I was just shooting moonlit scenes I would have stopped the aperture down a little for extra sharpness in the foreground however when you are hunting for meteors you need to collect as much light as possible so I kept the aperture wide open at F/2.8. I'm in Winter mode at the minute, now I'm thinking how cool this would be in moonlit snow!

Paul and I went back to the vehicles and got the heater on to warm up and enjoyed a good brew and snacks then we headed back into the stone circle complex. It was 01.00 when we suddenly got into our own personal zones, without any discussion Paul drifted off to do his own thing and I did the same, its funny when this happens, its never planned, when it does happen it usually means we are comfortable with the night and starting to feel creative and focused, yet at the same time completely at ease and one with the location.

I walked to the far end of the complex and felt drawn to the most distant circles near the edge of the perimeter. I realized I had never shot night images from this angle before, I decided I really liked the composition with the stone circle casting shadows from the lowering Moon and the isolated tree to the right hand side. I began shooting another long sequence of images for meteors/time lapse/star trails. At times cumulus clouds would drift in rendering the sky 80% overcast but then it suddenly cleared again so I just let the camera shoot away. This is one of the patrol images, I liked the mix of moonlit clouds and a sprinkling of stars.

I stacked the clear frames and ended up with this which I was really happy with. Yes, that's a bright meteor in the N however it was a sporadic and not a Taurid.

02.00 in the morning and bitter cold with a frost, my breath was condensing in the air and the grass beneath my feet was cold and starting to steal the warmth from my body. I took a look at my camera bag and it was completely white, covered in a crisp frost. I had some fun shooting this circle with the long shadows and standing inside, Moon and planet Jupiter on view. Paul and I soon called it a night and where back home for 03.00.

Three of us returned again to the stone circles on November 18th to watch for Leonids. The main peak was the previous night and it was cloudy however during the pre-dawn hours of the 19th an outburst of Leonids was expected. John Fagan joined Paul Martin and I for the watch, it was freezing yet again at -2C. I took along my 10" F/5 Dobsonian reflector to enjoy the dark hours before moonrise. We observed a selection of Messier objects, in fact, M42 was the best I had seen it all season, it actually looked like a CCD image without the crazy colours, the nebula was green-blue to me, however the dark structures and complex outer extensions were simply remarkable, we all enjoyed the view while John lit a log fire to keep us warm. I also tracked down comet C/2020 V2 ZTF between Ursa Major and Draco. The comet was mag +10.2, D.C: 4 with no tail, another comet ticked off my growing list.

We then spent hours within the stone circles in the frost sky watching and shooting meteor patrols, I've never seen the Leonids so bad, we never saw a single one for hours on end, it was shocking. However we couldn't complain as the naked eye show of Orion, Sirius, Mars and Taurus over the frosty trees was like a festive scene and truly beautiful. The Moon rose late in the night and we finally saw 3 Leonids and that signaled the end of our watch. I'm currently hoping for photogenic Winter weather and comet C/2022 E3 ZTF which might became a faint naked eye object in January-February. This is a rather short report compared to my usual however I still hope you enjoyed it and if nature can produce something special soon I might get a couple of more shoots in before Christmas. Thanks very much for reading.


Martin McKenna

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