Bluebird Morning (April 14)

When we woke up early Monday morning, we looked outside to see that most of the previous day's snow-bearing clouds were gone, leaving behind blue skies and pristine snow. 


When we saw this view of Twin Sisters out our front door we knew we had to go out!

With almost no discussion, we decided to forego our usual morning coffee and just grab our gear and head into Rocky Mountain National Park. We were undeterred by the 0F reading on the thermometer and rolled out of the garage at just past 7:00am. 


Driving in towards Deer Ridge Junction

We drove up to Deer Ridge Junction to take in the panoramic views of Longs Peak and the Continental Divide, then over to the viewpoints above Horseshoe Park to see the spindrift on Chapin, Chiquita and Ypsilon peaks.


Longs Peak and the Continental Divide

Mike and "Tina" in some blowing snow at Deer Ridge Junction

On the way down to Horseshoe Park viewpoint

Chapin, Chiquita, and Ypsilon peaks

From there we drove on to Many Parks Curve, where Trail Ridge Road is seasonally closed. On our way up, we noticed skier tracks on the mountain above Little Valley and we stopped to take a picture of them. Susan wondered aloud, "I wonder if my friend Nancy and her husband skied there?" She learned later that day that they indeed had hiked up 1.5 hours for a single ski run! 


Ski tracks left by friends

Longs Peak, viewed from Many Parks Curve

Susan captured this stunning telephoto shot of Ypsilon Mountain with a raptor in flight. 


Raptor in flight with Ypsilon Peak

We then headed back to Bear Lake Road, stopping along the way to see a Red Crossbill near the road. 


Look closely at the beak on the Red Crossbill

At Bear Lake we found a 75" base of snow and walked in to the first viewpoint of Hallett Peak.
 

Bear Lake Ranger Station

Obligatory shot of Hallett and Flattop from Bear Lake

Telephoto of trees on the mountain with the walls of Hallett in the background

Then we drove back and stopped at Sprague Lake, where a wild turkey greeted as us we pulled into the parking lot. As we headed in to the lake, we saw what looked like a small wedding party at the fishing pier on the lake, and from a distance we could see the couple posing for photos. 


Wild Turkey near Sprague Lake

Small wedding party at Sprague Lake

As we walked in clockwise around the lake, we met the wedding's officiant on the way out, under-dressed and obviously cold. As we got to the pier, we offered to take a few pictures of the family and then walked around the lake. 


Nice background for for a wedding!

Snow-covered trail along Sprague Lake

We watched a pair of geese make their way across the frozen ice. Amazing they can stay warm!


Canada Geese on mostly frozen Sprague Lake

After we got back to the car we decided to drive out via Horseshoe Park and Sheep Lakes to see if there were any Bighorn Sheep out and about. There weren't any, but we did stop at a Great Horned Owl's nest we knew of and found an adult hunkered down in the nest. 




After we moved on and got back into cell coverage, Susan got a call from a local birder telling us about some migrant birds at Lake Estes, so we decided to extend our little trip. 

But before we got back to town, we came around a curve on Fall River Road to find a herd of an even dozen of mostly female Bighorn Sheep, with a couple of not-quite-a-year-old lambs. 


Bighorn Sheep on the road



We pulled off and spent quite a bit of time watching and photographing them as they dug into the snow on the hillside, looking for food.




 






After this treat, we headed on over to Lake Estes, where we saw some of the usual birds there, plus a Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Flicker, American Avocet, Killdeer, Opsrey, and both Mountain and Western Bluebirds.  


Loggerhead Shrike

Killdeer

Osprey

When we looked at the time, we found is was after 1pm and realized how hungry we were! So we headed home for a very late breakfast and some coffee. Amazing how much we could see in just a few hours in our "backyard." And after having traveled so much in the past year, it was really nice to return to our familiar places. 


Mountain Bluebird

Mt Olympus, overlooking Lake Estes

April Birding

Susan and I woke up fairly early and she said, "let's go down to the lake and do some spring birding."

So, without any coffee or breakfast, we just grabbed the camera and binoculars and went down to the lake. In just a couple of hours we easily observed 18 species:
  • American Robin
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Canada Goose
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Common Grackle
  • Common Raven
  • Great-horned Owl (not at Lake Estes, but in town)
  • House Sparrow
  • House Wren
  • Mountain Chickadee
  • Osprey
  • Pine Siskin
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Song Sparrow
  • Townsend's Solitaire
  • Turkey Vulture
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
We were hoping to see the Wilson's Snipe, but didn't. We did run in to our local birding friend Gary Matthews.

We also saw a lot of post-flood heavy-machinery action around the lake. Here are a few pictures from the morning.


Townsend's Solitaire


Managing river flow near the lake

Common Goldeneye take-off

Osprey fly-by

Canada Goose on-the-wing

White-crowned sparrow

Canada Goose portrait

Making small rocks from big rocks

Yellow-rumped Warbler

And the rump... :-)

The Stanley Hotel

Great-horned Owl in its nest

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Lenticular cloud over Twin Sisters (taken April 9th, 2014 at 8:08am)

Fairbanks, Alaska - Part III: The Northern Lights! (March 2014)

... continued from Part II...

Susan writes...  It's not easy seeing green... :-)  Our alarms would go off at 11:30pm or midnight after afternoon and/or evening naps. We'd check our devices and apps -- "Fairbanks has lights!" the Facebook Aurora Borealis Notifications (ABN) page would announce.

We might be seeing a greenish glow to the north... We'd jump out of bed, put on four or five layers of clothes, throw our camera gear and tripod into the car, and head out into the cold darkness. Usually it was around midnight, give or take an hour, and we'd return to bed sometime between 3 and 5 AM. We were continually exhausted, but the exhilaration of seeing this remarkable event of the universe kept us going. We had a difficult time doing anything during the daytime because one or the other of us was always catching up on sleep.

At first we didn't know how to see the Aurora. We didn't even try the first night because of clouds. The second night Mike caught a faint green glow out our front door. The third night the forecast looked better for clear skies and aurora so we headed out towards the Alaska Pipeline viewpoint.

On the way I looked out my window and saw some strange cloud like movement in the sky. Wow, I was seeing it! Because of the surrounding lights I could not detect the green until we stopped and our eyes adjusted to the dark. We stumbled on to a great first viewing experience at the Pipeline, then again later on a side road on the way home. And we were absolutely stoked for more.


Trans-Alaska Pipeline with aurora borealis

We got serious about studying the data and finding more local reports of how and when to see the lights. Seriously obsessed.

Mike writes...

After the first full day, which was overcast, the skies cleared, and stayed that way for almost the entire two weeks we were in Fairbanks. And to add to how ideal conditions were, the moon was either a sliver, or never was up during the night.

Our first night was at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline viewpoint pullout. There were several other cars/people there, no doubt seeking the same thing we were.


Photographers at the pipeline pullout

Although the pipeline pullout was north of Fairbanks and its lights, it was also very close to the main highway going north all the way to Prudhoe Bay, so there was a lot of truck and car traffic and headlights. And because this was a popular, close-in aurora viewing spot, there was a lot of traffic pulling in and out, too.


Highway traffic lights

So we began exploring other locations besides the pipeline pullout. On the Facebook ABN page we saw some pictures taken in Fox, so we drove in there behind the Silver Gulch brewery, but didn't really find the dark spot we were looking for. We decided to head over to Goldstream Rd and found a pullout that gave us some nice views of the sky and some trees to add foreground interest.


Our car on Goldstream Road

Looking down Goldstream Rd towards the northwest; one of our favorite shots



Looking southeast with the moon rising in the Fairbanks "light bubble"

Traffic was much lighter along Goldstream, and there was almost no light from homes. But we kept reading about other locations, so we tried to balance doing a lot of late night driving around in the dark with actually getting to stop and watch and photograph the aurora.

The Steese highway was definitely interesting, but it was a pretty long drive. Plus, the green laser from the LIDAR at the Poker Flat Research Range was often "in the way" of our aurora images.


Along Steese highway, a little past Skiland (can you see the green laser?)

The first few images I shot near Poker Flat I wasn't even aware of the laser, as I didn't notice it with the naked eye. But when I "chimped" the camera display after each shot, I was seeing this very bright vertical line and didn't know what it was. I checked the front of the lens. I reseated the lens. I checked focus. I turned the camera off/on. Finally, I just stared out, and began to see the faint laser. Later I discovered other photographers on the Facebook ABN page had a similar experience.


iPhone shot of our location on Steese highway :-)

Another fun thing we did with photography was renting a fisheye lens. We thought about buying one, but they are expensive and would probably be infrequently used. But we learned that a local Fairbanks camera shop, Alaska Camera - Fairbanks Fast Foto, rented out lenses, so we picked up a Canon EF 8-15mm f/4.0 fisheye zoom lens for a week, and had a lot of fun with it.


8mm fisheye view of most of the sky, taken along Steese highway

Not an aurora shot, but a fun fisheye view of the trees surrounding our Fairbanks home

From a photography perspective, shooting the aurora isn't too different from capturing the night sky or Milky Way. A tripod is a must for long exposures. However, sometimes when the aurora is moving, you'll want a little shorter exposure time to freeze the action, rather than have it blurred. Most of our best shots capturing "structure" were around ISO 4000, f/1.8 - f/2.2, with exposure times of 4-10 seconds. We shot in RAW mode and later adjusted white balance somewhere in the 3800-4200 range. But really, the most challenging part of shooting the aurora is staying warm!

Another night we decided to check out the aurora viewing at Chena Lake Recreation Area, a little east of North Pole. We hadn't scouted this location in the daytime as we did with the pipeline and Steese locations, but it worked out great. We went to the Lake Park first, and could've walked out onto the frozen lake, but it was windy there and we didn't have as good a view of the sky. We drove on into the park, going north to the River Park. There was a big parking lot with excellent views of the sky and just enough interesting stuff on the horizon.


One of our first shots at Chena Lakes

And what a great spot this turned out to be! Not only was the sky dark and the auroral activity some of the very best we saw on our trip, but we ran into a couple of friendly local amateur photographers, Bill and Terry, who gave us some helpful photography tricks and good location tips.


Fun shot in the parking lot: Terry's dog wearing a blinking collar, with Terry at his tripod; our car to his right

15mm fisheye view, almost 180 degrees of the sky at Chena Lakes

We learned a lot here, partly from Bill and Terry, and partly because we saw a level of activity that added new words to our aurora vocabulary: "curtains" and "structure" and "patterns" and "dancing."


I can see a "distorted skull face" in this shot; do you?



We also had a lot of very active displays directly overhead, yielding really cool and ephemeral patterns and colors.


Looking directly overhead






And we learned from our new friends that one "space weather" parameter we newbies had been relying on, "Kp," wasn't nearly as useful as some of the other space weather indicators, like the Bz component (direction) of the Interplanetary Magnetic Field or IMF. A negative Bz value seemed to correlate to more active auroral display.



We had a new appreciation for the scientific, governmental and academic entities watching the sun for solar activity and providing forecasts for not only aurora, but for potential radio blackouts, and in extreme solar events, even impacts to electrical grids like the one in Quebec in March 1989.



Not to mention all the new acronyms: SWPC, GOES, POES, ACE, SOHO, etc.



We spent many hours at home and in the field, looking at space weather, trying to understand the forecasts and match what we'd been seeing with previous forecasts.


Several local photographers and business had great resources for alerting us to auroral conditions. One popular website many of us used was Ronn Murray's webcam.

It was all very educational and fascinating to finally be able to witness firsthand a planetary-scale phenomenon.


Structure and curtains and dancing

Though it was very cold and windy, the high auroral activity at Chena Lake kept the adrenaline flowing and it wasn't that hard to stay warm, especially when you could take a break in the warm car. Plus, we'd learned a lot on previous nights about how to layer up. For Mike, it was poly-pro long johns, fleece pants, cargo pants and wind pants for the bottom, and on top, long johns, fleece shirt, wind-block fleece jacket, and a nylon shell, plus Loki mittens, balaclava, and wool watch cap. And perhaps the most valuable gear for Mike was Sorel mukluk-style boots good down to -100F. His feet were toasty warm!

Our final aurora-viewing location was another closer-in one we learned about from Facebook ABN -- Nordale Road, a north-south running road between North Pole and Chena Hot Springs Rd. It was a quick drive from our place on the north edge of Fairbanks over to Nordale, and though there were more lights from homes, the pullouts along road afforded excellent views of the northern sky.


Along Nordale Road, near North Pole, looking north at 2:42am, March 26

8mm fisheye all-sky shot at Nordale Rd (visible lower left center)

Along Nordale Road, looking east-north-east

About the time we figured out how to dress, where to go, how to be rested, and how to shoot the aurora, it was time to pack up and return to Colorado. But wait! Space Weather forecasts were suggesting that recent solar activity was possibly sending a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) our way! Should we extend?! We considered it very seriously, even asking the locals on ABN.

On our last night out, we shot some of the night sky from the deck of our house, and went back to Nordale Road for what we hoped would be a grand finale of aurora.


Shooting star captured from the deck

A huge cloud of green aurora filled sky

More curtains descended from the north


Here's a short time-lapse video of the aurora viewed from Nordale Road


The Milky Way was trying to peek through the aurora

We didn't. And it was OK. The CME wasn't a direct hit and didn't produce very much activity, so we felt comfortable with our decision to go home as planned.

We had an early flight, on another clear day, and during the flight to Seattle we had views of Alaskan mountains that rivaled our Denali flight-seeing trip!


Cool sunrise at the Fairbanks airport, waiting for de-icing

Flying over the Alaska Range



And as we approached Seattle, we got a good look at the Olympic Peninsula, including Dungeness Spit, an excellent hike we did last spring.

After we returned home, it took a week or more to settle back into a more normal sleep pattern. And we kept looking at aurora forecasts, wondering what the skies looked like and whether we were missing anything. Sometime in April, the aurora show will be over. The length of the day in Alaska will be much too long to see anything but the very brightest aurora.


Almost back to the Denver airport (above and to right green patch in center)

I think we will want to chase more aurora someday. And maybe not only in Alaska! :-)

Our self-portrait, taken near Goldstream Road