söndag 18 december 2011

Humpback Whales

Right now, the traditional and important fishing for herring is in full swing along the coast of Northern Norway and it is a very special sight to see the returning fishing-boats in the fjords during the blue light of the polar darkness.The herring does not only attract the fishermen, but also killer whales and humpback whales that feast on the fish along the coasts and fjords.

Returning with a catch of herring

As a marine biologist, I started (in a very small scale) to collect pictures for photo-identification of humpback whales in Norway in 2008 - a project that will hopefully one day result in new knowledge on the ecology of humpbacks and give insight into migration patterns between e.g. different feeding grounds. In co-operation with other biologists such data may also reveal migration routes between the feeding grounds in the north and the overwintering grounds in the southern hemisphere.

The most widely used tool for studying humpbacks is very simple and straight-forward. The technique basically involves getting good enough pictures of the flukes of the whales that can be stored in a database. Because no two humpbacks look exactly the same (the flukes have various patterns and markings/scars) the pictures can be used as human fingerprints to identify individual whales. If enough pictures from various places are collected over long time, the same individuals may be seen several times and one can start to get an idea of e.g. migration patterns and the population size.

The fluke of a humpback whale is like a human fingerprint and not two flukes look the same 

All projects that aim to understand more about cetaceans through photo-identification are long-term projects and a lot of time and patience is needed before any useful body of data is collected, but one has to start somewhere.

Yesterday, me and a couple of good friends went out with a local fisherman (thank you so much for all your help O-G, you were amazing and did not disturb the whales once!), and managed to locate five different humpbacks on the outside of Kvaløya, and although the whales were clearly resting at the surface for most of the time, I could add at least four "new" individuals to the database. Not only the fluke, but also the dorsal fin is highly characteristic and will be included in the database.

The dorsal fins of two different humpback whales (collected in 2008) outside the coast of Senja

Humpback Whale outside Kvaløya, 17 December 2011


Humpback Whale film from outside Kvaløya, Troms

If anyone observes humpbacks along the Norwegian coast and/or have pictures that may be useful for photo-identification, I would be very happy to get in contact with you and you can always reach me on: info@northernlightsphotography.no

Read more about the humpbacks in the Norwegian News NRK Troms og Finnmark

söndag 11 december 2011

Total Lunar Eclipse indeed !

The night before the total lunar eclipse was cold and crystal clear with excellent seeing conditions, so my hopes were high for getting a spectacular view of the eclipse the next day. As usual with eclipses, however, unexpected clouds tend to roll in just in time for the eclipse and naturally they did. It was not even possible to guess where the moon should have been in the sky, so in a way, I guess one can call it a sucessful total lunar eclipse - I couldn`t see a thing!

But then, when the totality was over, I could briefly glimpse the eclipsed moon for about 10 minutes. This is also very typical eclipse-behaviour. When you give up, the clouds play a little with you and give you back some hope and below is my best, and only, shot of the event before the clouds rolled in again.

The day after the eclipse, the sky was crystal clear here in Tromsø again and I`m sure the clouds were having a good laugh up in the heaven (probably over some other sky-watcher who went out to enjoy the night sky), but all in all, it`s good to know that some things never change.

Besides, maybe the clouds have decided that they have had their fun and that they give us some clear skies for the upcoming Geminid meteor shower! The job of spoiling a good meteor shower is after all the job of the moon, which will be almost full.

The Geminids are usually extremely good though, and the chances are high for some bright fire-balls to be seen even in bright moonlight!

måndag 5 december 2011

Total Lunar Eclipse

Next Saturday, on the 10th of December, a total lunar eclipse will be visible in all of Norway and in large parts of northern Europe, North America and Asia.

Here in Norway, the eclipse will be visible in all of the country. In southern Norway, however, the eclipse will start before the Moon has climbed over the horizon so the beginning of the eclipse won`t be visible. In Northern Norway the entire eclipse will be visible and the Moon will be relatively high in the north-east during the peak of the eclipse.

The eclipse will start at 13:45 (i.e. first umbral contact) and the moon will be totally eclipsed for almost an hour (51 minutes) between 15:06 - 15:57. The last umbral contact will be at 17.18.

Please note that the times are given in local time for Norway, so for universal time (UT) you will have to subtract an hour, so the totality will therefore be between 14:06 - 14:57 UT.

For details check NASAs lunar eclipse page: http://eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov/OH/OH2011.html#LE2011Dec10T

The Moon will be good placed in the sky, so there should be plenty of nice photo-opportunities, weather permitting. Below is s picture from the total lunar eclipse in December last year, when thin clouds covered the moon. The next total lunar eclipse in Norway won`t be until 2015, so grap the chance and go out and watch the Moon `disappear` next Saturday afternoon !

Total lunar eclipse of 21 December 2010

Total lunar eclipse of 21 December 2010

måndag 28 november 2011

Red and Green Sky

The polar darkness is far from being dark!

Tonight a CME (coronal mass ejection) from the Sun hit the Earth`s atmosphere and produced some fantastic northern lights that played over the snow-clad landscape during all the night.

At some points during the night there was even some all-red auroras mixed with the green, which is not a common sight even within the Arctic circle. This looks very promising for the polar darkness period, which really ought to be called the polar lights period...

måndag 21 november 2011

Goodbye Sun

Tomorrow, the polar night period will begin here in Tromsø in Northern Norway, meaning that the Sun won`t rise above the horizon until January next year. Depending on the location, the length of the polar night period varies from just 20 hours on the Arctic circle to as much as 179 days of the year at the poles. Here in Tromsø the polar night period is "officially" between 25 November - 17 January, but many different definitions (and traditions) exist, and, due to the surrounding mountains blocking the view, the polar night in Tromsø is said to start on the 22 of November.

The last sunrise of 2011

The polar night can only be experienced inside the polar circles and can therefore only be experienced in seven different countries (not counting Antarctica); Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Greenland, US and Canada. To be perfectly strict, Iceland also has a tiny fraction of land within the Arctic circle.

Contrary to common belief, the polar night is not just dark, cold and horrible. To me, this is by far the most beautiful time of the year. A typical day during the polar night period begins with a long slow dawn in different hues of deep blue colours peaking with some orange-yellowish glow where the Sun should have been. Just when you believe the sun is about to rise above the horizon, a long slow dusk starts, turning the snow-covered mountains pink against the cold blue light. Then the Moon and the stars start to rise over the snow-covered landscape and the northern lights begin to play and dance like green and purple ribbons in the sky.

Tromsø during polar darkness

The polar darkness is also a very good time for cosy evenings in front of the fireplace, a time for reading good books and drink hot chocolate in cafès, and last but not least, a time to enjoy the northern lights under the stars! Entering the polar darkness also means that there will be a "return of the Sun"-celebration in the end of January to look forward to...

The blue light of the polar darkness

måndag 24 oktober 2011

Blood-red Auroras

Tonight the sky was filled by some of the most spectacular northern lights that I have ever seen. Early in the evening some truely amazing blood-red auroras could be seen towards the southern horizon as a strong CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) hit the Earth`s atmosphere and sparked a geomagnetic storm over the polar areas and also extended the aurora-oval far south so that many areas where auroras are normally not seen got to see the show, including "exotic" areas like e.g. Arkansas and California!

Time after time the sky was filled by the most amazing patterns, including strong coronas in green and purple, but most noticable was the dominance of the very deep all-red auroras - a much deeper red then I have ever seen before!

Deep red auroras dominated the sky tonight.

The colour of the northern lights depend largely on the composition of gases in the Earth`s atmosphere. When charged particles from the solar wind hit the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere, they excite the atoms present and give off light that we see as auroras. Tonights deep-red auroras indicate that the particles from the solar wind interacted with oxygen at high altitudes (whereas the more "normal" greenish-yellow auroras are formed at lower altitudes). Neutral nitrogen is responsible for the purple colour often seen at the "edges" of the more common oxygen-green.

More about red auroras can be read here: http://www2.gi.alaska.edu/ScienceForum/ASF9/918.html

Northern Lights Corona in green, yellow and purple (the orange parts are clouds)

Enjoying life!

Deep red auroras as seen from a river around midnight. Orion can be seen to the right.
The lights from the nearby city Tromsø can be glimpsed to the left in the picture

Northern lights crown - corona

Later in the night, the auroras appeared so strong in colour that I had to
decrease the saturation level in post-processing considerably!

Panorama by the sea. Large patches of an almost unreal red colour dominated the auroras tonight.
The planet Jupiter can be seen shining through the thin clouds to the upper right.

måndag 17 oktober 2011

Bird-photography from the living-room

It is late October and most birds have left their breeding grounds up here in the north. With the last month being dominated by heavy rainfall and wind, I can see their point in choosing to spend the winter further south, even if I myself can`t stand warm temperatures and very much welcome the winter.

Some birds stay during the whole winter, and more and more birds are gathering around the small feeding-place that we have in our garden, to feed on sunflower-seeds. Some days, a handful of seeds is all that is needed to do some nice bird-photography in the rain.

When I was out refilling seeds the other day I managed to scare off one of my absolute favourite birds (but a bird that I have never seen around here before) - a Great Grey Shrike / Varsler (Lanius excubitor). I failed to find it again, but instead another bird of prey visited the feeding-place just a few minutes later - a Sparrowhawk / Spurvehauk (Accipiter nisus).

Sparrow Hawk

Soon after having scared the smaller birds away, a Jay came flying and landed higher up in the same tree and very clearly showed that it did not like the new visitor at all. When irritated, jays often announce a bird of prey with a harsh screech and raise a crest of feathers on their head which made for a funny picture of this colourful bird.

Eurasian Jay / Nøtteskrike (Garrulus glandarius)

Eurasian Jay - a colourful bird

The sparrow hawk became immidiately aware of the new-comer, and kept it under close watch, and after taking off, the hawk suddenly re-appeared several times and it looked like it was not just irritated but actually considering the jay as prey despite the large size. Normally sparrow hawks go for smaller prey but this bird looked to me as if it was a female (being considerably larger than the male), and came back several times in surprise-attacks even though the smaller birds were gone and it did not look like the jay had full control over the situation.

An attack by a Sparrow Hawk goes quickly and usually happens among the branches of a tree.

The Sparrow Hawk kept the Jay under close inspection

Happy with the photo-session from the livingroom, another surprise-visit came by in the afternoon - a Three-toed Woodpecker /Tretåspett (Picoides tridactylus) - a beautiful woodpecker of the northern taiga.

Three-toed Woodpecker

Male Three-toed Woodpecker in the garden

tisdag 11 oktober 2011

The Draconid Meteor Shower

During Saturday night the meteor shower "The Draconids" had its peak in activity. With rather heavy clouds and some light snow-fall early in the evening, I had no real hope to catch any meteors with my camera. Soon after setting up the camera however, I saw a very bright fireball in the east (not far from Jupiter), leaving a distinct reddish smoke-trail. The camera was, of course, pointing in another direction but it looked promising and I decided to ignore the clouds building up behind me.

Meteors are caused by small bits of debris that, when crashing into the Earth`s atmosphere, burn and cause the intense light-streaks that we call meteors. The origin of most meteor showers are dust from comets. When comets travel to the inner parts of the solar system, they shed a stream of debris along their orbits. When the Earth travels through such a stream, an increase in meteor activity known as a meteor shower can be seen. The comet debris that causes the Draconids comes from the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner.

The clouds came closer and during the peak of the activity I had to realise that the score Clouds vs. Draconids was 1-0, but despite the cloud-cover, I caught a farily bright meteor close to the constellation Cassiopeia.

Draconid meteor through the clouds

Later on, the sky got more clear but there were few meteors to be seen, but instead some spectacular northern lights filled the sky and were at times really bright despite an almost full Moon.

Auroras over Tromsø. The Planet Jupiter can be seen through the clouds to the upper right in the picture.

The next meteor shower is "The Orionids" on the night of October 21, and for an excellent overview of the meteor showers in 2011, have a look at this page: http://www.theskyscrapers.org/meteors/

tisdag 27 september 2011

Solar Storm !

A severe geomagnetic storm hit the Earth`s atmosphere yesterday and caused strong northern lights that could be seen far south of the latitudes where auroras are normally seen!

Reports of strong aurora-activity started to come in from many places in both southern Europe and North America already on 26 September, but here on Kvaløya outside Tromsø in Norway, the rain-clouds were stubborn and did not allow any observations. Tonight, however, some gaps in the cloud-cover revealed some truely spectacular auroras above. Not in a long while have I seen such colourful auroras with coronas in deep-purple, blood-red and intense-green!

Below are a few still-shots from various time-lapse sequences that I will hopefully be able to post here soon. More pictures and information about the current spaceweather situation can be seen here: http://www.spaceweather.com/archive.php?view=1&day=28&month=09&year=2011

A gap in the rain-clouds!


A five-second exposure around midnight local time revealed a stunning sight.
Jupiter and the Pleiades open cluster can be glimpsed in the bottom of the picture


Intense northern lights corona

måndag 26 september 2011

Hawk Owl / Haukugle

After an exceptionally good year for Norwegian Lemmings (Lemmus lemmus), 2011 will be remembered by many as one of the truely spectacular "lemming-years". For predators, like for example various owls and other birds of prey, the increased abundance of rodents has been, and still is, nothing less than a feast!

During a day-trip in Troms this weekend, I could happily notice that some areas were still crowded with voles running around among the berries. Hawk Owls (Surnia ulula)  and  Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) were enjoying the dinner table in the beautiful autumn-landscape.

Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula)


Hawk Owl


Hawk Owl taking off

Driving through the autumn landscape

Rough-legged buzzard (Buteo lagopus)

Troms by autumn is beautiful


Hawk Owl

tisdag 20 september 2011

News from the night

Last night, the heavy cloud-cover that has been parked over Northern Norway lately finally permitted an opportunity to look at the night sky.

The recent supernova that erupted in our galactic neighbourhood (in the Pinwheel Galaxy, M101) that I reported on earlier (http://nordlysfoto.blogspot.com/2011/08/supernova-explosion-in-pinwheel-galaxy.html), could be seen visually without problem even in modest equipment (in my case a spotting scope for birds at lowest magnification (20x). The moon, 50% of full, washed away much of the light of the galaxy itself (which I could only see using averted vision), but the supernova itself proved easier to see than the galaxy.

SN2011fe in M101 - 19 September 2011

Supernovae occur when stars collapse at the end of their lifes and trigger an enourmous explosion that may outshine an entire galaxy for a period of time. This particular supernova, designated SN2011fe or PTF11kly, has now climbed to approximately 10th magnitude according to recent estimates. The last time such a close-by bright supernova could be seen was back in 1972, and only a handful of such bright and close SN`s are known since the middle-ages, so and if you want to see this rare sight, now is the time before it fades! Right now, the exploded star shines brighter than it`s host galaxy and will probably stay bright and stable for yet some time to come.

How to find it and to see it? It is well placed in the sky for us living in the northern hemisphere. The host galaxy (M101) can be found close to the perhaps most well-known star-pattern in the sky - The Big Dipper also known as The Plough or the Saucepan (Ursa major). Once you have located the Big Dipper, finding the place for the supernova is fairly easy, but you will need to let your eyes get dark-adapted before you give it a try. Stay outside in a dark place away from any artificial light sources for at least half an hour before giving it a try.

If you have a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope or a telescope, you should then go to the last to stars in the handle of the Big Dipper. Then, imagine a triangle with the two last stars forming the base and the galaxy with the SN forming the top as shown in this map of the Big Dipper: http://irishastro.org.uk/m101supernova.html. At the top of the imaginary triangle, a faint smudge (being the galaxy) can be seen and the supernova should be clearly visible as a "new" bright white star. A good way of finding the SN is to take a picture of the area - the SN really stands out even in short exposures.

Inverted image of M101

Above is a picture from yesterday evening (19 Sept 2011) taken with a Nikon DSLR with a 300mm lens, exposure time 30 seconds at ISO 1250. To reduce noise, I have combined several 30 sec exposures, but the SN is so bright that it would easily be picked up in even shorter exposures.

For the most recent images and reports, this is a good page: http://www.rochesterastronomy.org/sn2011/sn2011fe.html

Can`t find the bloody thing anyway?

Don`t despair, there`s plenty of other wonders in the night sky. Maybe it was because I have had a dull grey rain-cloud the size of a galaxy over my head lately, but wherever you look in the night sky, there`s plenty to enjoy!

Early in the evening, the moon shone over the autumn coloured landscape with the Milky Way high in the evening sky, later to be joined by some faint aurorae.

The Milky Way


Autumn evening with the Milky Way and Auroras

While the night grew older, the Moon climbed higher with Jupiter shining brilliant by its side, I tried to see what had happened to the comet (C/2009 P1 Garradd) since the last time I had clear skies. Not really expecting to see it with binoculars on a bright night like this, I was surprised how easy it was to find. Now in the constellation of Hercules, the comet keeps wandering over the night sky: http://cometchasing.skyhound.com/comets/2009_P1.pdf, and was a delight to see against the rich star fields. Below is a single-30 sec -exposure of the comet with a 300mm lens and a DSLR.

Comet C/2009 P1 Garradd

Around midnight, I decided to call it the night and stumbled around for a while in the backyard before hitting the bed. Autumn nights are beautiful, but so are autumn days - and the Moon can be seen all day among the yellow autumn leaves.

The backyard around midnight

Morning Moon