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Beautiful Lough Beg Noctilucent Clouds & Magilligan Golden Sunset - June & July 2017

This has been the strangest Noctilucent Cloud (NLC) season I have ever experienced since I began watching them in the year 2000. No one can predict for certain what any given NLC season will be like however there has been a strong trend indicating a wax and wane of NLC frequency in relation to solar activity, by this I mean that prolific NLC seasons often coincide with the period around solar minimum with lesser activity at solar maximum, however there has always great variability with any given season. The 2017 season got off to a great start, reports began coming in from trained observers documenting displays exceptionally early around mid May, although this is not unusual we haven't seen reports this early in years which began generating much excitement among NLC observers, there were even unconfirmed reports of sightings on May 11th-12th which is the earliest I have ever seen since I became interested in the subject. The consensus was that with these early reports and approaching solar minimum we could be in for an exceptional season.

I missed these early displays due to cloud however by mid month I had already bagged several weak displays which felt good however I had yet to see a good display, I was craving brightness and structure and a good clear night to enjoy it. Furthermore one of my goals this season was to obtain a good time lapse of a nice NLC display so this goal was always the main focus of my NLC thoughts. By late June several reports had come in from both the N and S of complex displays so it was only a matter of time before my chance came. On Friday June 30th the weather looked to improve dramatically bringing an exceptionally clear night across the entire country in the wake of a frontal system which had just cleared before sunset. The clouds were sweeping E and clean blue clear skies were appearing all over the country. This rare clear night was not lost on my photography and chase mates Paul Martin and John Fagan and soon we had all agreed to meet up for a shoot in the hope that NLCs would appear.

As usual we discussed at length possible locations with cool foreground however we decided to shoot inland and chose Toomebridge over the River Bann, I had shot NLCs here before in the past so I knew it would make for some interesting foreground and it would also be new territory for Paul and John. We had arranged to meet at Castledawson roundabout however road works had closed the main road to Toome so we instead chose Castledawson where we had a snack in the local filling station then made our way to the bridge. The night was 100% clear with not a cloud in sight, we climbed over a gate and made our way into a field adjacent to the bridge, then waited. The night was mild and the breeze was easing, at this point there was no sign of any NLCs and we began to get concerned, would this night be a bust?, would 2017 strike again?

While we waited I shot a short time lapse of the bridge in the twilight sky as the last of the residual cloud cleared through, suddenly I heard stumbling coming through the grass, my head torch revealed a formation of glowing eyes trotting our way, I grabbed my camera in mid lapse and prepared to run for the gate thinking a bull was charging for us, Paul spotted that they were cows and we would be better staying put, that turned out to be a good idea, the cows were curious and friendly and just wanted to see what we were up to. It was after midnight, I casually glanced to the NE and out of nowhere I could see NLCs, I said ''bright NLCs now to the NE'', we all spotted them and each of us expressed shock at how quickly they had formed. Unfortunately they where not over the bridge so the angle didn't work out however we began shooting and observing anyway. Paul studied them through his binoculars while John and I shot images to examine the structure. We all had a good feeling about this, even though the display was only 7 degrees high it was composed of sharp well defined long bands with herringbone, as we watched the structure became more complex as it evolved into a brighter display, all of us had the feeling it was getting better by the minute and that this was going to turn into an impressive show, especially later in the night and before dawn.

We also realized our location wasn't going to work and that we needed to find a new spot to shoot from that was free of power lines, trees and street lights so we all rushed back through the field, climbed over the gate and got back to the vehicles. We decided to follow each other and just drive along the back roads of Toome near Lough Beg and hope we found a good spot, we were not going to get foreground now, we just wanted a good open view to shoot. So we drove along the narrow dark roads, took smaller roads and on two occasions came to a dead end, everywhere else was blocked by trees so we were starting to get agitated, the night was waxing fast and we had only a couple of hours left until dawn, time was running out, we needed somewhere fast. Paul spotted a random road which branched off the main and a quick examination showed just enough room for the jeep and van to park. I found a tiny clearing near a gate while Paul parked on the grass verge then we were out setting up the cameras. We where literally standing on the grass of an elevated back road in the middle of the countryside somewhere near Lough Beg.

The view was perfect, we could see down to the horizon and had an unobstructed view of NW, N and NE sky, this was perfect. All three of us had our cameras set up and ready for action. The NLC display was now a stunning sight, type 4 brightness and sporting complex structure, it was absolutely beautiful, we all 'ahhhed' and 'wowed' at its structure, the colours of the electric blue clouds glowing against the twilight sky above a bed of yellow-green horizon haze was simply jaw dropping, we all agreed it was the best display we had seen in the last two or three years. Paul shot stills while John and I shot time lapse, this was the chance I had been after, the opportunity to shoot an NLC time lapse in perfect conditions, it was happening. The sky was perfection, 100% clear with not a cloud in sight, great transparency, and a stunning NLC show all converged together. Getting a good complex display is rare enough, getting a good display in a sky which was forecast to stay clear all night long is even more rare. I began shooting with the 50mm F/1.8 lens stopped down, I was taking short exposures in the 2-3 second range at ISO400, the clouds were so bright I didn't dare expose for longer incase I blew them out, the above is one of the frames from this time lapse. Capella is the bright star to upper left, the NLCs start within 'The Kids' and extend into the E through Perseus, the actual display covered 160 degrees of sky at this time however I selected this area as it boasted the best structure.

I stopped the lapse and switched to the 24-70mm and began a new lapse, I occasionally recorded a vlog using my mobile phone which I intended to use for the completed time lapse. This was now the 'darkest' part of the night when the sun was at its lowest elevation, the NLCs seemed to glow with great brilliance, all three of us talked about everything we were seeing, all of us were in the zone, we couldn't believe our luck that this night of all nights was producing one of the finest shows of the season and that all three of us where here to enjoy it together. On display were medium and large scale whirls, herringbone/waves, bands and lacunous holes, as we watched we could see the structure moving in real time with the naked eye, I watched as stars dimmed and faded as the NLCs drifted past, John spotted an NLC Gremlin at image centre, the king bad gremlin from the movie, there are eyes, ears and a mouth, the night was calm and peaceful with just the sound of a distant cow chewing cud in a nearby field.

Third time lapse of the night, this time zoomed in more with the same lens, near 70mm, and using short exposures, you can see just how bright the display was now getting, the sun was beginning to climb again and as dawn grew closer the clouds grew brighter and higher in altitude. Extremely complex structure now in the centre of Auriga and in the vicinity of 'The Kids'. Check out those amazing holes and swirls, waves crossing bands and the dazzling large 'knots' at centre. I was occasionally stopping my time lapse as I was anxious about overexposing the brightening clouds and had to check the lens for mist or dew then I continued on shooting.

Later the NLCs had drifted into the N and NW sky sector, the waves/herringbone looked exceptionally well defined and sharp above the trees, if you are unsure what herringbone looks like - the structure is similar to waves in the sand on a beach at low tide - the NLC bands were casting their own shadows onto the background veil. The display was climbing higher and brighter that we all thought that maybe they were now over the bridge, we all decided it was worth checking so we packed up fast and drove through the back roads at a swift pace, dawn was close by so our window was short. We got out and went to the gate, the angle was still not correct, however I had an idea, if we drove into Toome and went to the other side of the River Bann they might just be over the bridge.

Now at our new location after 03.00, located at the Eel fishery, the atmosphere was stunning. The roads were quiet, the river was still like a mirror while the NLCs glowed over the bridge, now at 60 degrees high, the display was now 4.5 brightness and covering an extensive area of sky, my exposure was down to 1.5 sec's.

Pre-dawn silence, rings would appear on the river after a subtle splash where fish rose which added to the majesty of the morning while several large Herons flapped their great wings as they swooshed past us. The climax of the night was the dark silhouette of a Heron perched upon a post over the water with NLCs glow aloft while beside the Heron's head was bright planet Venus which shown a deep golden-red as it rose from a bed of yellow haze, and as the first birds began to chirp we decided to call it a night. This night was a memorable experience and ranks among my top Summer sky memories, I will always look upon this shoot with great happiness.

The following night an impressive NLC display appeared once again making this the second night in a row of bright complex displays. This time I was in Cookstown and spotted the display soon after midnight, the N and NE shy was covered in thick high definition bands, I knew this was going to be a stunner so I changed and drove out the carriageway. I pulled into a side road and began shooting, however the weather was against me, thick clouds kept blowing in from the NW all night, I got treated to regular gaps which only allowed me to witness portions of the display at any one time. After 01.00 the structure was stunning, every time I tried to shoot time lapse I only got a few minutes of shooting before cloud blocked the show for me, then another opening would appear adjacent to the first so I would pan the camera and begin a new lapse only for the cloud to block me once more, this game of cat and mouse happened all night which was frustrating however I was enjoying the hunt and the warm muggy night made the experience more than pleasant, I love Summer nights like this, either chasing NLCs or chasing storms, the night is warm enough to wear a t-shirt outside and yet still feel totally comfortable.

I drove N along the late night roads searching for clear skies however I knew it was in vain so I pulled over on a hill in the countryside near Desertmartin and watched. The sky was completely illuminated by the NLCs, I was certain that this was easily a type 5 display, I have not observed a true type 5 since the Summer of 2009. Clouds blocked the main bulk of the display now however the blazing upper canopy was visible glowing vibrant electric blue and filled with high definition bands. I made the most of the opportunity and took several exposures hoping to get a car trail to compliment the scene, it look a few attempts as the traffic came head on in the wong direction however a few minutes later this car passed at the perfect speed to get the shot I wanted, I was hoping their lights would illuminate the sign which they did to perfection. I headed back to Cookstown after 02.30 feeling content with the hunt while listening to Nick Cave's new album. I can say for certainty that had this night been as clear as the previous then this would have been one epic show and one of my finest catches since 2009.

The rest of the season seemed to be a let down after this mid season peak, there were other displays but I was clouded out for them all then when the clear skies appeared the NLCs either vanished completely or were so low and faint that they didn't warrant a late night drive. Having said all that I'm happy enough with these two memorable nights, especially June 30th which made the season for me. Before I finish with NLCs I should give you a comparison based on my personal observing records. In 2016 and 2017 I have been observing on average 5 or 6 NLC displays per season at best, compare this to 2006-2009 seasons when I was bagging 27 nights of NLCs and in one hard core season 30 nights of NLC!!!, what a difference, I wonder what the 2018 season will bring?

On July 20th I was chasing storms on the Sperrins, I had spent hours on top of a mountain and I felt like my eyes were burnt out of my head from continuously watching cloud bases, however as has been the case for much of 2017 the convection was high based, low topped, had no life and was extremely non photogenic, furthermore a capping inversion over the N of the country was inhibiting vertical growth so there would be no storms or anything photogenic this day, I was there mainly for funnels and despite seeing a base slowly form on a convergence zone the day went without much fan fare and I came home during the late afternoon with no digital trophy to show for it. I had just about given up, had dinner, then lay down for a while, when I had recuperated by late evening I decided to go on a shoot to the north coast as the cap had held back much of the showers and the air looked clean and atmospheric and with less than two hours to sunset I suspected the light could be good.

I drove N swiftly and as I did so I spotted a cell crossing Lough Foyle and Donegal, it was in the process of decaying as the solar heating and CAPE waned however it looked very dramatic, I could see a tall updraught tower forming at the rear while the underside was getting lit by the sun, I had a strong instinct this was going to produce a great sunset so I rushed along to Magilligan Point where I met Nigel McFarland of 'Aerial Vision NI' fame and here we teamed up to shoot the sunset. What a stunning evening this turned out to be, the decaying cell was slowly crossing the lough while dropping a narrow curtain of precip, it was now well into golden hour and the cloudscape and light transformed into a world of wonder.

Beautiful core of golden precip, golden beach and golden lough, while to the E the approaching dusk sky was covering the rear of the clouds in a nice blue tone which contrasted beautifully with the warm light to the W.

What a stunning end to the day, the drive was more than worth it for a scene like this, these are 10mm wide angle, the underside of the clouds were yellow and gold while a golden glitter path shone across the water towards us, this was pure magic, the moment seemed to last for a very long time, if only this had been an actual thunderstorm, can you imagine how epic this would have looked.

Moments before the sun set behind Donegal I launched my drone and took this selfie with me and the sunset, the drone captured the light perfectly, no editing done here, this was straight off the memory card, this was how we saw it with the naked eye. Nigel and I were so invigorated we ended up staying here until 23.00 due to the buzz from this sunset, for me personally this was the best sunset of the year and the light was simply stunning.

DSLR time lapse of the June 30th/July 1st type 4 NLC display from Lough Beg using the Canon 600D and Canon 50mm F/1.8 and 24-70mm F/2.8 lenses captured throughout the course of an entire night and ending in Toome at the eel fisheries before dawn. You might notice a few skips in the footage, this happened when I stopped shooting to check the lens for dew before continuing, this goes to show just how quick the NLCs were moving. Thanks very much for reading.



Martin McKenna

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