“No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie.” – William Butler, 1873
In the 1870s, just before the coming of the railway and European settlement, English adventurer William Butler trekked the Canadian prairies, knowing what he called “The Great Lone Land” was soon to disappear as a remote and unsettled territory.
The quote from his book is on a plaque at the site where I took the lead image, Sunset Point at Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
The night was near perfect, with the Milky Way standing out down to the southern horizon and the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana. Below, the Milk River winds through the sandstone rock formations sacred to the Blackfoot First Nations.
The next night (last night, July 26, as I write this) I was at another unique site in southern Alberta, Red Rock Coulee Natural Area. The sky presented one of Butler’s unmatched prairie sunsets.
This is “big sky” country, and this week is putting on a great show with a succession of clear and mild nights under a heat wave.
The waxing crescent Moon adds to the western sky and the sunsets. But it sets early enough to leave the sky dark for the Milky Way to shine to the south.
This was the Milky Way on Wednesday night, July 27, over Red Rock Coulee. Sagittarius and the centre of the Galaxy lie above the horizon. At right, Saturn shines amid the dark lanes of the Dark Horse in the Milky Way.
I’m just halfway through my week-long photo tour of several favourite sites in this Great Lone Land. Next, is Cypress Hills and the Reesor Ranch.
These are the Moons only insomniacs and night shift workers get to see. These are the waning Moons of morning.
For eight mornings I’ve been up at 4 a.m. each day to catch the early Moon and collect a series of images of its waning phases.
The result is above, a series that runs from right to left in time, from the 19-day-old waning gibbous Moon, to the 26-day-old thin crescent Moon.
I ordered them that way in the composite to reflect the direction the Moon moves across the sky. As it orbits Earth and wanes, the Moon moves from west to east, or right to left, in the sky from morning to morning, at least in the northern hemisphere.
A run of clear nights and mornings made the series possible. From Alberta, as dry as it is, too many cloudy nights make a consistent Moon phase series a challenge at best.
As it was I had to contend with smoke from forest fires in B.C. which reddened the Moon on the last few mornings, a tint I had to correct for the composite above. But here below, is what the Moon really looked like one morning.
The last two Moons, at 25 and 26 days old (i.e. the number of days since the previous New Moon phase) exhibited the phenomenon known as Earthshine. You can see the night side of the Moon glowing gently with sunlight reflected first off the Earth.
Below, this was the Moon this morning, July 21, with it very low in the east amid the twilight sky.
This final morning was exceptional. The smoke had cleared off, and when I got up at 4 a.m. (reluctantly!) for the last shoot I was greeted with the best display of noctilucent clouds I had seen in many years. They covered the northeast and eastern skies in a rare “grand display.”
The thin crescent Moon is just rising at right, with Venus bright as a “morning star” at far right. This was a sky certainly worth losing sleep over.
From the southern hemisphere the Moon appears “upside-down” and higher each night in the northern sky as it waxes from crescent to Full.
These are scenes from the last week as the Moon rose higher into the evening sky as seen from Australia.
A northerner familiar with the sky would look at these and think these are images of the waning Moon at dawn in the eastern sky.
But no, these are of the waxing Moon (the phases from New to Full) with the Moon in the evening sky.
From the southern hemisphere the ecliptic – the path of the planets – and the path of the Moon arcs across the northern sky. So as the Moon waxes from New to Full phase it appears to the right of the Sun, which still sets in the west. The world still spins the same way down under!
So the Moon appears upside down and with the crescent phase the “wrong” way for us northerners.
This panorama taken April 4 sweeps from northwest to southeast, but looks north at centre, to capture the scene at sunset of the waxing 8-day gibbous Moon in the northern sky as seen from the southern hemisphere.
The angle between the Sun and Moon is just over 90°, shown here by the angle between the right-angle arms of the wharf, pointed to the west at left, to the north at centre, and to the east at right.
The Sun has set just north of west, while the Moon sits 13° east of due north. The Earth’s shadow rises as the blue arc at far right to the east opposite the Sun.
The next night, April 5, I shot this panorama from Philip Island south of Melbourne. Again, it shows the waxing gibbous Moon in the north far to the right of the setting Sun in the west (at left).
Getting used to the motion of the Sun and Moon across the northern sky, and the Moon appearing on the other side of the Sun than we are used to, is one of the challenges of getting to know the southern sky.
Things just don’t appear where nor move as you expect them to. But that’s one of the great delights of southern star gazing.
On Friday night the Harvest Moon rose amid the arching shadow of the Earth.
This was the view on Friday, September 16 at moonrise on the Red Deer River. The view is from the Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Badlands and sweeping curve of the river.
Above is the wide arch of the dark shadow of the Earth rising into the deepening twilight. Almost dead centre in the shadow is the Full Moon, the annual Harvest Moon.
Hours earlier the Moon passed through the shadow of our planet out at the Moon’s distance from Earth, creating a minor penumbral eclipse. No part of that eclipse, such as it was anyway, was visible from here.
But the alignment did place the Moon in the middle of our planet’s shadow projected into our atmosphere, as it does at every sunset and sunrise.
But it takes a very clear sky for the shadow to stand out as well as this in the darkening sky. I like how the curve of the shadow mirrors the curve of the river.
This is a marvellous spot for photography. I shared the site with one other photographer, at far right, who also came to capture the rising of the Harvest Moon.
The image is a 7-segment panorama with a 20mm lens, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw.
It was a great night for shooting meteors as the annual Perseids put on a show.
For the Perseid meteor shower I went to one of the darkest sites in Canada, Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan, a dark sky preserve and home to several rare species requiring dark nights to flourish – similar to astronomers!
This year a boost in activity was predicted and the predictions seemed to hold true. The lead image records 33 meteors in a series of stacked 30-second exposures taken over an hour.
It shows only one area of sky, looking east toward the radiant point in the constellation Perseus – thus the name of the shower.
Extrapolating the count to the whole sky, I think it’s safe to say there would have been 100 or more meteors an hour zipping about, not bad for my latitude of 49° North.
The early part of the evening was lit by moonlight, which lent itself to some nice nightscapes scenes but fewer meteors.
But once the Moon set and the sky darkened the show really began. Competing with the meteors was some dim aurora, but also the brightest display of airglow I have even seen.
It was bright enough to be visible to the eye as grey bands, unusual. Airglow is normally sub-visual.
But the camera revealed the airglow bands as green, red, and yellow, from fluorescing oxygen and sodium atoms. The bands slowly rippled across the sky from south to north.
Airglow is something you can see only from dark sites. It is one of the wonders of the night sky, that can make a dark sky not dark!
The lead image is stack of 31 frames containing meteors (two frames had 2 meteors), shot from 1:13 am to 2:08 a.m. CST, so over 55 minutes. The camera was not tracking the sky but was on a fixed tripod. I choose one frame with the best visibility of the airglow as the base layer. For every other meteor layer, I used Free Transform to rotate each frame around a point far off frame at upper left, close to where the celestial pole would be and then nudged each frame to bring the stars into close alignment with the base layer, especially near the meteor being layered in.
This placed each meteor in its correct position in the sky in relation to the stars, essential for showing the effect of the radiant point accurately.
Each layer above the base sky layer is masked to show just the meteor and is blended with Lighten mode. If I had not manually aligned the sky for each frame, the meteors would have ended up positioned where they appeared in relation to the ground but the radiant point would have been smeared — the meteors would have been in the wrong place.
Unfortunately, it’s what I see in a lot of composited meteor shower shots.
It would have been much easier if I had had this camera on a tracker so all frames would have been aligned coming out of the camera. But the other camera was on the tracker! It took the other composite image, the one looking north.
The ground is a mean combined stack of 4 frames to smooth noise in the ground. Each frame is 30 seconds at f/2 with the wonderful Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 5000. The waxing Moon had set by the time this sequence started, leaving the sky dark and the airglow much more visible.
The sky presented a pyrotechnic display of light and colour in the sunset sky.
What a show tonight, July 18, as a thunderstorm lit the sky with bolts of lightning. As the storm retreated, the Sun broke through, ideal lighting for a rainbow. In this case I was able to capture the rainbow pierced by bolts of lightning. See below for tech details.
A little later, the sunlight got stronger and the rainbow grew to span the sky, in a beautiful display of a double rainbow lit by the red light of the setting Sun.
As the beams of sunlight lit the clouds, it looked like the rainbow was on fire.
It has been a stormy start to summer in Alberta, but at times the sky has put on a stunning show. That was certainly the case tonight.
Technical on the Lightning and Rainbow shot at top:
This is a stack of 35 consecutive video frames taken with HD (1920 x 1080) resolution at 30 frames per second with the Canon 6D, and extracted as an image sequence with Photoshop, then processed in Adobe Camera Raw, then stacked with Russell Brown’s Stack-A-Matic into a smart object with maximum stack mode, to accumulate the frames taken over about 1 second into one still frame.
So I could have got this with a single 1-second exposure with the lens stopped way down and a ND filter, but my timing would have had to have been very, very lucky!
A bright display of noctilucent clouds last night prompts me to remind northerners to look north at this prime season for night shining clouds.
Noctilucent clouds (NLCs) can be seen only in summer and are best in the few weeks before and after (mostly after) summer solstice. I shot all these images in the middle of the night. Indeed, the two images above and just below are from 3 am on the morning of June 27.
NLCs are high altitude clouds at the edge of space some 80 kilometres above the Earth, far above any normal weather clouds. Their height allows sunlight streaming over the pole to illuminate them all night long.
Their cause is a mystery. They may form by water vapour condensing on meteoric dust particles.
They look luminescent, as if glowing on their own. But these are not auroras. They shine only by reflected sunlight.
And they have complex structures, with intricate waves and ripples.
And they move very slowly, as this time-lapse from June 17 shows.
Readers living at a latitude between 45° and 55° are best situated to see “NLCs.” From farther south the clouds will be below the horizon. From farther north the sky may be too bright with twilight and the angle of illumination wrong for optimum viewing.
Unlike auroras, there is no predicting when they might appear. Some nights when it is clear where you are, no NLCs appear. Perhaps that’s because of cloud much farther north blocking the path of light from the Sun on the other side of the planet to the clouds on our side of the Earth.
But by the end of July NLC season is coming to an end as the Sun drops farther below the northern horizon at night, and the nights get darker.
So over the next four weeks, look low in the north for night shining clouds.