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First Snow Of Winter, Mullaghmore & Moneyneany Aerial Winter Scenes - December 3rd 2020

Don't talk to me about October and November, these were the two worse months of the year as far as photo opportunities go. Normally we get either a freight train of Atlantic storms or cold high pressure interrupted by regular convective events along the coast which provide a host of daylight and moonlit subjects. This year has been different, October and November were completely uneventful with no interesting weather, hardly any clear nights, the main feature being grey days with low Stratus, drizzle and bland overcast nights. Late November can often produce surprise snow falls worthy of my attention however this year mild weather put an end to that. I couldn't wait to see the end of November and hoped that December would turn the tables. As it happened the month began in a very positive manner with a complete pattern change and our first cold spell of the season so naturally I was on guard and studying the models.

The cold spell looked fairly potent however the other parameters were marginal. Fronts from low pressure systems wouldn't be engaging the cold air so there would be no frontal snow events. There would however be cold air mass wintry showers and it was these I had put all my hopes on. As the models refined with each update my confidence dropped for seeing any of the white gold and I became very skeptical of anything note worthy. It didn't have to be exceptional, I just needed enough snow on the hills to acquire drone footage or even just to see my first snow of the season, after all, it was 22 days until Christmas day and I was getting into the festive spirit so any cold crisp weather would be much welcomed.

The problem with this set-up was that high pressure began to build and migrate eastward across N. Ireland and as a result all the deep unstable air got nudged off shore to the W and SW. CAPE values over warm oceans were sufficient for decent cold air mass convection with great lapse rates and potential for thunderstorms, if these had formed over land they would be thundersnow storms. But as it happened the CAPE remained off shore so any instability we had would be rather weak and pathetic, sure there would be a few wintry showers but without the big energy we would be missing out on great potential for laying snow. The target period was December 2nd/3rd, with particular attention focused on the morning period. It was to be a cold dry night with slack winds and scattered showers, during the night temperatures would be +2C, cold, but not good enough for snow, however by dawn temps would reach 0C or even below so the best chance of any showers of snow would be during the early morning hours and with temperatures being this cold any dusting would lay until the rising sun would melt the delicate dusting.

The consensus was a cool night with showers of sleet, hail and snow on high ground, however showers would be well scattered, as a result I was entirely convinced this was going to be a damp squib. I lost any excitement but remained optimistic all the same, I fully expected to wake up the next morning to no snow at all on the hills, or at best a dusting which wouldn't be worth filming. That being said I charged all my gear and set the alarm for 06.30 the following morning.

I woke and went online, dawn was glowing and the sun had not rose yet, it was dry and frosty outside the house and planet Venus and the waning Moon made for a nice sight in the pre-dawn sky. No reports appeared on social media at all, perhaps it was too early and besides it was still dark, I wasn't for moving until I saw a positive report. Then Nigel McFarland posted on twitter, he had snow on the Sperrins, he had posted a snap shot of just a dusting on the grass, it didn't look like much but it was the only report online. I got chatting with Nigel and he admitted it was too dark to tell the bigger picture so he was going to wait out until sunrise for a better look, he had been out since 06.00, I decided I would meet him and take a chance, Nigel and I are rather obsessed with snow so it would be a shame to not give it our best.

I left Cookstown during twilight and the ambient light had improved dramatically and in the distance I was shocked to see snow on the tops of the Sperrins, in particular the Moneyneany area and surrounding hills, Nigel was located on the Birren road in that area so I couldn't wait to get on location. There's something about the sight of fresh show which is difficult to describe, I just have to get out in it. I arrived on the icy Birren road just as light became good enough for filming, I had my fist in the air saying 'yessss!' with excitement, this was the first snow I had seen since last Winter, it was a magical moment, and the cold clean crisp air of dawn made the experience even more memorable.

We had immediately picked out three target areas worthy of filming. One was Moneyneany summit and the other two where the N and S sections of Mullaghmore, in particular these latter two areas seemed have the most snow anywhere as far as we could see. We drove up the mountain road and found a good location which offered us great visual line of sight and we got both our drones on the air. First flight of the day, freezing hands and fingers, drone flying over the eerie morning landscape flanking the mountain, then over the pine trees crusted in frost and a dusting of snow, then as the drone ascended the snow became more impressive, I was recording video while periodically stopping for stills.

I have never filmed this section before so now was the time. The sun was rising behind cloud so we had no direct light on the snow yet, this was was that transition zone between blue hour and sunrise. I obtained as much video as I could then flew back, my fingers were hurting from touching the cold metal of the tablet holder attached to the RC. I was delighted to have captured my first snow footage of the season, anything else now was a bonus.

We drove on up the mountain and pulled over at the road side between two summits, we had a perfect view of Mullaghmore. As we waited for the light to improve I took the chance to grab a few DSLR ground stills with the 100-400mm. I spent a long time looking at this image, pondering if I should include it or bin it, the tree has no snow on it, however the grass and background mountain is white and the cold light actually makes me shiver looking at it, I can feel the temperature in this image, and this is why I included it.

Behind us was Moneyneany summit and we noticed a dramatic scene which had been unfolding the entire time, a cloud inversion was constantly rolling over the mountain and Sperrin valleys and troughs. It never seemed to reach low levels and always stayed high up, it was too good to ignore, the light wasn't great but the scene was too photogenic to pass up so I got the drone up for the second flight of the day. It was like looking at another part of the world, what you can't appreciate from this image was just how fast those clouds were moving, it looked like strong winds were blasting over the mountain range, yet at ground level there wasn't a breath of wind and I got no strong wind warnings on the drone app.

180 degree aerial panorama of the entire scene. The Mavic 2 Pro takes 20MP still images with a 1" sensor, it then takes 20 images and stitches them together on board the drone to make the final panorama, the technology is absolutely amazing.

I recharged the batteries in the van using the cigarette charger and took more DSLR images, it was now between 10.30 and 11.00 and the light was getting very good. Once the sunlight hit the mountain the snow seemed to radiate pure white intensity. This is a hand held wide image with the 18-55mm kit lens showing Mullaghmore and that tree which always gets my attention.

Facing the S side of the mountain, sunlight was perfect and the snow looked better than ever, the batteries had just charged so once more I got back in the air for the third flight of the day.

This was the best flight of the day, with every passing minute the light seemed to get better and better. Looking down on the forest which flanks the summit, in the distance is the dark cliff face I had filmed during the dawn fight earlier.

Then half way through the battery the scene went from pleasing to stunning, it was like a curtain had been drawn back and the world of snow below was lit into brilliance, this was a Winter wonderland and better than anything I could have hoped for this day. This is the N summit of Mullaghmore, I think this view is simply stunning. In the distance is the back of Benbradagh which has no snow on it at all, we had certainly picked the rite area today.

Turning the drone on it's axis to face directly at the summit and mast, the mountain took up too much of the 77 degree FOV so I tried a panorama again, this time a horizontal pano, less images, in fact, 9 images in a 3x3 grid formation.

From the same hovering position, only this time a 180 degree panorama of 20 images stitched in 2x10 grid format, you can see the difference this makes, not only more of the scene in the frame but the subject is pushed further back, this is my favorite smart mode on the M2P and I use it alot, especially for Winter landscapes and occasionally for thunderstorms.

One last image using the 'normal' camera aspect then we landed. We were delighted how this morning at turned out, three flights, ground images, gorgeous light and our first snow of the season all on the run up to Christmas, we couldn't have asked for better. Snow in November is not uncommon however in my own experience December snow is much more rare in this part of the world, the exception being 2010 of course. It was difficult to take our eyes of the snow, it was so beautiful I could have admired it all day, but we were both getting cold, tired and hungry. At midday we parted company and headed home. I had lunch and a nice hot chocolate and warmed up for an hour.

I thought I was done with filming until I called down home to visit my Mum and our Dog Rhua, I was explaining about the beautiful snow I had experienced, when we looked out the window it was nothing but dry ground in Maghera, it was hard to believe the difference a few miles out the road, the looks on their faces said they wanted to see snow, also Rhua is mad about two things in life (apart from chicken and rodeos) and that's sand and snow, she hadn't seen snow since last Winter and I had a feeling she had forgotten it had existed. So we decided to head out on an adventure and check out the snow once more, I suspected the majority of it would have melted by this stage however when I pulled up on the Birren road I was delighted to see that Mullaghmore in particular still looked great.

The sun was shinning, the snow was bright and pure and the white coated mountain was surround by crisp blue skies. I noted the sun was getting low and entering the stage of golden hour light. Rhua was out and so was Mum, she was amazed to see snow again and Rhua was shocked when she jumped out of the van into powdery snow, she spent some time sniffing, pausing, sussing out what the change was, then after a few minutes it dawned on her, she remembered, this was snow!, then she began making noises and bouncing over the snow in long strides like a Rabbit and several times she even began rolling in it, snow covered her nose and ears, she was loving it. Since the light was so good I decided to get another flight in, I was addicted, it simply had to be done. I did a pass up the slope and arrived at the summit where I did a semi wrap around the famous mast on top, I had never actually been up there before or been close enough to see detail until now, it looked so cold up there, I christened it 'Ice Station Zebra' (don't ask me why), memories of John Carpenter's 'The Thing' came to mind, it looked like some kind of Antarctic station.

In the vicinity I spotted something strange on the tablet screen, it looked like an unnatural formation rite on the edge of the mountain face 1-2m from a precipitous drop down the mountain. I flew the drone closer for a look, it was a pile of rocks stacked together, I wonder why this was?, perhaps a hiker will let me know as I'm curious. You can see the station and rock pile on my last video below.

It was golden hour, before landing I took one last 180 degree panorama of Mullaghmore summit, yes you can see that there has been some degree of melting however the patterns and structure of the mountain looked fantastic in the warm pre-sunset light, Ice Station Zebra looks so remote up there. Also far away on the horizon to the NW is a line of low topped cold air convection in the form of Towering Cumulus and even a Cumulonimbus with non-sheared anvil growing over the more unstable air along the coastline.

Final image of the day, this was taken with my mobile phone and actually came out very well, Rhua sat down on the grass herself with her head aligned with the summit. She had enjoyed her first snow encounter of Winter, she was now wet and cold, as she was warming up inside the van I told her that it won't be long to the proper snow comes. She looked at me as if to say she wants a least 1ft of the white gold, she's a bit like myself in that regard. I really enjoyed this day out in nature and hope for bigger snow falls this Winter, make sure to watch the videos below for the full experience.

First flight of the day at dawn of the south side of Mullaghmore summit

Second flight showing Moneyneany summit and the dramatic cloud inversion blowing over the tops and through the valleys

Third flight and the best of the day, Mullaghmore summit and snow covered forest all in superb light

Last flight of the day with attention focused on Ice Station Zebra, the rock pile I found and the snow in golden hour light. Thanks very much for reading and watching and make sure to watch the videos at 1080p HD on youtube. If nature obliges me I hope to get another report completed before the end of 2020.


Martin McKenna

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