Monday, December 30, 2013

Low band Excitement, High Band Treasures

This weekend combined two of my favorite activities on the ham bands and led to some good overall DX on the low frequencies and some pleasant surprises on the higher bands, too. This was the weekend for the Canadian RAC contest and also the Stew Perry 160 Meter Challenge. The Canadian contest started Friday and the Stew Perry Challenge ran from Saturday morning through Sunday morning, Texas time.

I particularly like to look for the Canadians on the low bands during the RAC Test , given that the distance isn't that great, but the low band challenge is there. So Friday night, I started trolling 160 meters for Canadians and soon found a group of them. Most were quite strong, with the main object of the contest being for everyone else to work Canadians.

From an SWL strategy standpoint, I usually find a good strong VE and listen as he gets a run started, logging those who call him, hoping for some good DX to be in the pile. When it appeared that there were not many Europeans showing up on 160 calling them, I began rolling through the band logging all the VE's I could find.

One of the fun things about contests is hearing the old familiar calls. That was certainly the case this past Friday night with regulars like VE5UF and VE3EJ having signals well above S-9 on the R-75. While on 160, I found some others, too. Those in the log included VE3BW, VE3CX, VE2ZJ and VA2EU.

After a while of not finding any new stations, it was time to try 80 meters. There the strategy of parking on a VE calling CQ and hoping for some Europeans turning up worked quickly about 0300 GMT when I found VE3TA on 3521.1 coming in at S-9 + 10db. It wasn't long before a string of Europeans were calling him along with a big pile of US stations. The Europeans were not real strong, but were led off with OM3ZWA and SM2LIY. Many more followed along with the US and Canadian stations.

The 80 meter band was chock full of VE's with monster signals. Among those heard in less than an hour were VE1LD, VE3FZ, VE3GFN, VE3VSM, VE7RAC,VE4RAC,VE3SWA,VE6AO( with an S-9 + 20 db signal!) VE4YU, VE6RAC,VE5GC and VE6JL. One nice surprise was hearing another old familiar signal, WL7E from Alaska on 3527.5 at 0310 GMT.

Saturday night Texas time ( December 29 GMT) I slid back behind the lighted dials again as the Stew Perry 160 Meter Challenge was well under way. I was hopeful for Europeans because many of the close in Stateside stations were relatively weak and some of the VE's were quite strong. It was not to be, however. The only sniff of a European station was an S51 from Slovenia, and he was not fully copyable.

The exchange in this contest was just grid square numbers and to count a station in my SWL log, I required myself to actually copy the grid square of the station being heard. Not a lot of DX was heard during the evening. XE2S was heard at 0045 GMT on 1812 with an S-7 signal. Among the Caribbean stations heard were regular KV4FZ from the Virgin islands at 0044 GMT on 1811.7, NP2X from the Virgin Islands heard at 0106 GMT, and FM5CD from Martinique heard on 1835.4 at 0113 GMT. The European's still had not appeared at my station by 0400 and I called it a night.

The next morning ( Sunday morning Dec 29 local)was also disappointing with regard to the JA's and other Pacific stations. While DX Summit showed several JA's being worked, the only one I managed to hear was JA3YBK on 1812 at 1151 GMT. Even Hawaii was not present in large numbers. I did hear one broken call that ended with a /KH6 tacked onto a Stateside call at 1204 GMT on 1835.9, but never was able to get the entire call. A little later at 1215 GMT I did hear DX contest regular KH6LC on 1811.5, but only about S-4. I heard him making long strings of CQ calls with few takers.

At this point, it was obvious the real low band DX was not going to be found on 160 meters. The morning before ( Saturday Dec 28 local) I had found a few interesting broadcast stations in a quick sweep through the 60 and 49 meter bands, so I decided to take a look on slightly higher frequencies than I had been trolling for amateur CW signals.

Slipping up to the 120 meter broadcast band, it was obvious the hunting would be better here. My usual bellweathers for band openings were there strong enough for audio to be heard...these were Australian stations VL8T on 2325 and VL8K on 2485, Tennant Creek and Katherine respectively. They were actually being heard before a hint of sunrise at 1231 and 1233 GMT respectively. WWV on 2500 was boiling in at S-9 + 30 db. I was a little disappointed in not hearing WWVH from Hawaii behind it.

Things did start looking up as I tuned up from there in the Upper Sideband mode, the idea being to stop and ID anything that showed up with a carrier strong enough to recover audio from. At 1238, found Pyongyang coming in at about S-5 with good audio on 2850 kHz. Going on up did not hear anything more until WWRB on 3185 blasting in at S-9+20 db and CHU with time signals from Dominion Observatory Canada on 3330 kHz at S-9+ 10db.

The really good news came when I got up to 3480 and another North Korean was coming in at S-9 + with great audio. Maybe the morning would not be a total waste! It was to be a mixed morning. Radio Nikkei was coming in well on 3925 at 1305 GMT and China radio easily heard amongst the ham traffic on 3985 moments later. Rolling on up, it was to be China and India through the next half hour...with Xinig, China on 4220 at 1310 GMT. This was a good catch because of its relatively low power. From India,Bhopal was heard on 4810, Mumbai on 4840, Lucknow on 4880, Jaipur on 4910.

The disappointment was the total lack of Papua New Guinea stations. I guess they are all disappearing. I will miss Radio New Britain and her band mates in the future.

At 1319, I noticed that Alice Springs VL8A was still on its daytime frequency of 4835 while Tennant Creek and Katherine were still on 120 meters. In one way, its a disappointment not hearing them on the lower frequency, but at this time of the morning ( 1319 GMT) in Central Texas, it is much stronger on the higher frequency: a good S-6 with easily listenable audio.

The 5000 khz WWV frequency had WWVH at about the same strength as its Colorado frequency mate. Radio Rebelde on 5025 was present with its usual strength of S-9+20db, but this morning the audio sounded rough and there was a low rumbling sound beneath the program audio.

Swinging up into the 49 meter band, the BBC World Service from transmitters in Thailand was quite strong on 5845 and a bit stronger on 5875. The Voice of American from the Saipan/Tinian site was coming in about S-5 with flutter on 5890. One surprise was hearing Iran on 5920 kHz at 1346 and Vietnam with a good signal on 5925 at 1346 GMT.

One of the things I like the most about listening on the low bands around sunrise is how these frequencies sound so much different at this time of day. They seem to behave more like their higher frequency cousins and not like what one would expect from frequencies usually associated with the idea of them being used for local service. The signals sound like they are just sailing in and there is the exotic sound to them.

I have noticed over the years that these bands are highly under-estimated for their potential for DX. It is easy to get to thinking of them just as “ night time” bands. It appears to me that one must think about what is going on over the entire path. For example, if one wants to hear Japan or Australia here in the U.S. on the low bands, one must be aware of when the sun sets there. That is where the signal begins its journey and if there is no way to make the first hop, even if the rest of the path is in darkness there will be no signal.

That may mean that the window for hearing those signals is rather narrow. The time that the sun is setting there may be about the same time as the sun is rising here. By the same token, if the sun is rising in the east here and light is spilling over the horizon, the last place where the low band signal is hitting the ionosphere to the West is still in darkness and the brave little signal is already on its way down toward the receiver.

By observation, it has appeared that the lower frequency signals will disappear first, but that some amazing things can happen. I have heard 160 meter signals from Japan and Hawaii with dawn breaking here. The Australian and Papua New Guinea 120 meter and 90 meter broadcast signals have popped in with the sun well above the horizon at times. Signals on 60 meters and 40 meters have been audible from Australia, Indonesia, China and sometimes even India with the sun well up. I have heard amateur signals on 40 meters from Australia, Japan and Indonesia as late as two and three hours after sunrise!

Sometimes this has seemed to work in the other direction, too, with low band signals propping in from Europe and beyond before sunset, though the effects I have noticed for this have been mostly on 60 meters and above. I have heard and worked 40 meter amateurs in Europe as early as three o'clock in the afternoon here in Central Texas.

Getting a little higher in frequency gets into some truly interesting things. The 31 meter shortwave broadcast band and the 30 meter amateur band have been truly surprising at times. At the time of equinoxes, several years running I was able to hear and often work a VK6 amateur station on the far West coast of Australia on 30 meter long path before sunset here.

Sometimes to find the DX, one must take a chance. After all, all you are gambling is time. I usually tune around on the AM standard broadcast band on the way home after work. There are times I notice early skip occurring on a few frequencies, particularly high in the band. If it is still daylight and I hear Cincinnati coming in on 1530 or Minneapolis starting to show up on 1500 or Nashville on 1510, I know to get behind the receiver early and start fishing on the low bands for something unusual.

No matter where in the world you may be, you can develop bellweathers for early low band skip. You might start looking on the medium wave band early in the evenings for signs of co channel interference on some of the channels not occupied by local stations. By being familiar with what is out there on a “normal” day, you can easily notice something that is out of the ordinary and use that as a hint to go looking for some good stuff on the low HF bands.

The same goes for the higher bands, too. It is easy to think there will be nothing there and not take the time to scour the higher bands, particularly if there are those who are already saying this sunspot cycle is a poor one and the DX is not what it could be ( I think hams have been saying that every cycle since Noah was maritime mobile!). Often times the bands are open and no one is home.

Ten meters offers some interesting ways to check, even if no one is out there calling CQ. There are literally hundreds of beacon transmitters on the air between about 28190 and 28300 khz. Sunday afternoon ( Dec 29) initial tuning across the bands did not show much, but a run through the “ beacon band” showed several of them coming in quite well just before noon. These small, automatic transmitters transmit their callsign and sometimes location information over and over and over as a means of telling what is going on with the band. These stations showing up led me to scouring through the bands again and some real jewels turned up, including a new country for one band.

The first treasure showed up on ten meters at 1738 GMT in the form of 9J2BO all alone on the entire CW portion of the band, not wading through a pileup of stations, but involved in a casual conversation with a Stateside station with quite a good signal.

This led me to running back and forth between 10,12,15 and 17 meters tuning slowly back and forth across the seemingly unoccupied bands. Another clue that something might be lurking there was the atmospheric noise that was there even in the absence of regular signals. I look for this noise, easily distinguished from power line noise or storm static to tell when a band might be open.

Down on 12 meters, all by themselves I found VE6CMV talking with CT3EZ on Madeira on 24935 at 1802 GMT on SSB. Nice signals, too. Not overwhelmingly strong, but easily readable. When I did not find more, I slipped back up to 10 meters for another sweep and found a real treasure in the form of A25WO from Botswana on SSB on 28490.13 at 1811 GMT. Then down the band just a bit was CU1EZ in the Azores at 1815 GMT on 38474.2.

After not hearing much else for a few minutes, slipping back to 12 meters what did I find on 24970 on SSB but ZS6BAF at 1823 coming in about S-6 all by himself on the band. It was open but few were taking advantage!

An excursion down to 17 meters found a little more activity with more of the usual semi local activity ( i.e. Stateside stations working Stateside stations) but a bit of a pileup on 18072 led to the discovery of SU1HZ from Egypt at 1832 GMT, a new one for that band. So much for poor prop for the day!

Looking in unexpected places can indeed lead to discovering unexpected treasures!
This weekends work was with the R-75 receiver and 90 foot sloper up 45 feet at one end and sloping to the Northeast.

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