Tag Archives: Northern Lights

Northern Lights, Bird Irruptions and Boats!

These topics might not seem related, and generally they are not, but over the past 48 hours I have had a phenomenal run as a outdoor / wildlife photographer up here in the Northland. I’ll discuss each outing in turn but first mention I am in desperate need of some sleep!

This morning I awoke at 5 am (normal). While eating my bowl of cereal I checked my marine app which gives me the location of every ship on Lake Superior. I noticed that the Saltie, the Eldeborg would be passing under the Duluth Aerial Bridge sometime before dawn. Thus, even though I had been out last night photographing the Northern Lights, and also out during the wee hours of the previous night for another Aurora display, I quickly got dressed and grabbed my camera.

Arriving on site at Canal Park I turned on my camera, ready to photograph the freighter passing through the Duluth Ship Canal. Suddenly I notice my camera’s LCD screen was flashing “No Card, No Card”. Arrrgh! I realized that when I had arrived back from photographing the Northern Lights last night, after transferring the images to my computer, in my tired state, I forgot to put my simm card back in my Sony A6000.

I looked down the Canal, and I hoped that if I ran fast … completing my fastest 800m dash since junior high, I grabbed another simm card out of my card and ran back to my planned POV. I made it with about five seconds to spare, just beating the ship to my spot. This image was the result.

Why did I photograph a ship at dawn this morning? There are two answers:

  1. I am a boy, and I love boats!
  2. The Northern Lights display that has been active over the past 48 hours, finally calmed down

Yes, over the past two nights I have spent a significant amount of time at Stewart Lake, which is a wilderness lake ten miles north of Two Harbors, Minnesota. Each trip to the lake has been different. In this first image, I photographed the Aurora Borealis under an almost full moon at 4:45 am. The moonlight was so intense it washed out most of the Northern Lights display, but provided great lighting for this composition.

Later the same day, yesterday night, I returned to the same location. I timed my arrival to get to Stewart Lake well after dark, but before the moon rose. Lady Aurora danced over the frozen lake ice! For over 20 minutes the lights shimmered and danced, easily viewable to the naked eye. The first photo was taken of the Auroral Arc just before the dance began.

Okay … the blog’s title talks about birds, and my outings have not neglected our fine feather friends. Over the past two weeks the number of Arctic birds which have appeared in NE Minnesota has been amazing. Quite a few Snowy Owls have already been seen, including by me.  Given it is only November 8th, the numbers of Snow Owls is very unusual. Normally, we might start to see Snowies sometime after the 1st of December. The numbers of Rough-Legged Hawks, Redpolls, and Pine Siskins have been huge. Hawk Ridge recorded the largest number of Roughies ever seen anywhere in North America during the Fall migration. Personally, I am beginning to wonder if the winter of 2017 / 2018 will be an irruption year.

Here are just a few photographs from the past several days:

Hoary Redpoll

Red Crossbill

Red-Throated Loon (winter plumage)

Long-Tailed Duck (female)

Common Redpolls Eating Tansy

Horned Larks and Auroras

Today is a two post day, followed by silence as Molly and I head over to our lighthouse keeping gig at Crisp Point tomorrow morning … silence because we will be off the grid … electrical, phone and cell … kind of nice! However if read my earlier post from today, last night I watched charged particles in the northern sky.

I have found the best way to deal with lack of sleep due to astrophotography and chasing the Northern Lights is to take a bike ride. Thus, this morning when the temperature finally broke 40F (4.5C) I got on the bike and cycled up the North Shore of Lake Superior. The cool conditions must have made our visitors from the northern tundra feel right at home. During my ride I found these Horned Larks which were migrating south as I bicycled north!

In addition, here is one more image from last night. This photo was from early in the night when I missed the Aurora. Instead I saw the “green glow” and some great stars. Given the moon had not yet risen, the heavens were very dark.

Northern Magic on Lake Superior

What do you call a day when earlier in the afternoon some Lapland Longspurs walk up to within 3 or 4 feet of you, and continue to feed without concerning themselves with your presence even though you are never more than ten feet away … plus a night spent out under the stars watching Lady Aurora dance? The answer is Northern Magic!!!

I consider myself so lucky to live on Lake Superior. A friend suggested we should drive over to the Old Stella Pier and look for Longspurs. Normally I would have considered the experience of watching birds which summer on the tundra up on the Arctic Ocean, but migrate through the Duluth area a great day, but when my Northern Lights alarm started going off around supper time, I knew my day was not over.

I have been wanting to capture a decent Aurora Borealis display at the Davidson Windmill for some time, but never had been successful. It took two trips over to Wisconsin last night to capture the Northern Lights in an image my desired way.

During my first trip over to the windmill at 9 pm I arrived during a nice Northern Lights display, but in the ten minutes it took to determine the proper angles and set up my camera equipment, the Aurora display fizzled out. Bummer! I waited another hour but no dice. Went home.

At 1 am I woke up and checked the numbers. It looked like Lake Aurora might dance yet again last night. I drove back over to the windmill arriving at 1:45 am, and this was the result!

Lapland Longspurs on Old Stella Jones Pier

Northern Lights at the Davidson Windmill (Amnicon River in NW Wisconsin). Camera Settings were ISO = 1600; Aperture = 2.0; Exposure = 20 seconds.

Northern Lights Dance Over Stewart Lake (Two Harbors, Minnesota)

Lady Aurora came out and danced last night, and I watched her performance in northern Minnesota. The night was dark, and the skies were clear. She waited for the moon to set and then at 10:37 pm the performance began! Wow!

The first photo is a selfie I took 30 minutes into the show followed by a series of eight photographs. With each photograph I have given my camera settings and the time of night. In addition to learning how I changed my camera settings throughout the night, you will better understand how the display progressed over the course of one hour.

  1. Do not pick one set camera settings and stay with them all night during astrophotography
  2. Increasing the ISO settings from 1,600 to 3,200 doubles the amount of light entering my camera, but at the expense of a noisier photograph. You will need to learn for your own camera when a higher ISO setting yields too much noise. However, the higher ISO captures different kinds of light, and is better able to photograph moving Aurora spikes and waves (I often shortened my exposure times)
  3. Conversely halving my ISO from 3,200 to 1,600 decreased the amount of the light entering my camera by 1/2, but given the intensity of the Aurora had brightened this change was required to prevent blown out images in terms of exposure
  4. Note how I was also changing my exposure times. Obviously doubling or halving exposure time increases or decreases the amount of light entering the camera by the same ratio. All things being equal I want small exposure times as this allows me to photograph moving waves of Aurora light.
  5. My camera and other settings for all of these photographs were:
    • Sony A6000
    • Rokinon 12 mm manual wide angle lens
    • Aperture = 2.0

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Selfie – 10:54 pm / ISO = 3,200 / Exposure = 4 seconds

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Green Glow – 10:19 pm / ISO = 1,600 / Exposure = 15 seconds. I knew (and hoped) a display was in the offing. I had arrived at Stewart Lake at 9:30 pm, and the “green glow’s” intensity was increasing … generally a good sign.

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Intense Bands – 10:35 pm / ISO = 3,200 / Exposure = 6 seconds.  A highly defined band was now apparent, which often proceeds a storm.

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Storm Starts– 10:37 pm / ISO = 3,200 / Exposure = 6 seconds. The dance / sub storm has just started!

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Storm Continues – 10:37 pm / ISO = 3,200 / Exposure = 6 seconds. The dance / sub storm continues! The waves have moved a bit to the right.

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Intense Storm – 10:42 pm / ISO = 1,600 / Exposure = 8 seconds. Major storm in progress. This is fives minutes after the previous photograph. Note that I have now almost halved the the amount of light I am allowing into my camera.

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Intense Storm – 10:43 pm / ISO = 1,600 / Exposure = 8 seconds. Spikes!

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Selfie – 10:54 pm / ISO = 3,200 / Exposure = 4 seconds. Back to my selfie, but in sequence. This photo actually allows the same amount of light into the camera as the previous image. I doubled the ISO, but halved the exposure time. This allowed me to photograph moving objects … the Aurora’s waves and me. Try standing perfectly still for eight seconds … which is why I went to this setting for four seconds.

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Intense Storm – 10:58 pm / ISO = 3,200 / Exposure = 4 seconds. Some major spiking going on!

Stewart Lake Northern Lights Storm Ending & Clouds Rolling In – 11:18 pm / ISO = 3,200 / Exposure = 6 seconds.

Start to finish, these photographs span a period of 59 minutes. I left Stewart Lake shortly after this final image.