Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Cold Winter's Nights in Front of the Radio

There has always been something rather special about listening to the radio on a cold winter's night. When I was young, older hams and radio enthusiasts talked about DX found on such nights. Even the old radio articles and books in “The Radio Boys” series talked about great loggings when things were cold, the air was crisp and the night was still.

I don't know if there is anything really to it or if it is just a matter of self fulfilling prophecy, but there does seem to be some magic there. Maybe its the often total lack of thunderstorm activity and its attendant lower atmospheric noise levels. Maybe its the lower Maximum Useable Frequencies that appear in the winter or less noise from the sun. Whatever it is, it at least seems like there is more to be found on those cold, still nights when the stars even seem brighter and sharper in appearance in the sky.

Perhaps that is why the big contests for the hams are in the winter, including the 160 meter tests. Maybe more stations end up in the log because its too cold to be out wandering the streets at night and thus more time to be spent before the glowing dials of the radios!

Whatever it is, you can count on more exotic sounds coming through the headsets on such a night. The low band signals seem to float airily in, sounding more like their higher frequency cousins when the 19,16,15, 12 and 10 meter bands are open to distant points of the globe.

For me, there are several examples. Like the night of December 21, 2103 ( morning of December 22 GMT) YU3AAA came in at almost S-9 on 3524.6 at 0347 GMT. Not a difficult signal pulled from amongst the grass, but a strong, dominant sounding signal that stood firmly out amongst its bandmates.

Just a few minutes later, at 0349 GMT, 9A5W from Croatia floated up from the background to really stand out on 1821.8 on the 160 meter band. It was followed by XE2S well over S-9 on 1825 only five minutes later, working a rarity, a deep South American signal from LU8DPS on the frequency.

Often whims will strike when things are logged, and for some reason I will be given the idea to check something else. Tuning a little lower to the standard AM broadcast band, a new one for me, XEARZ from Mexico City appeared on 1650 kHz with an S-6 signal holding up through the splash from a local 1660 station. And XERF on 1570 from Acuna, Mexico, always strong here, was coming in at an astounding 40 db over S-9. Who knows what adventures might have been in store if family matters had not called!

It was enough to get me to fire up the R-75 again the next night to see if more might show up. The 160 meter band did not reveal any treasures, but the SABC transmitter from Meyerton on 3320 was coming in at a good S-7 at 0332. And just a small turn of the knob brought the familiar “beeps” of Canada's time signal station, CHU, on 3330 at S-9 plus 20 db.( it should be noted that when on the lower frequencies, I only have one of the two preamps activated on the R-75)

There just aren't as many stations to be heard on the 90 meter band as once were to be found ( stations like TGNA and HCJB are long gone from the band) So the next broadcast station found was the always amazing ( at least here) Radio Verdad from Guatemala on 4055, S-9 plus 20 DB with only 700 watts ( if the WRTH is to be believed) at 0338 GMT. In addition to the strong signal, the modulation level on this station is always good and it appears to have particularly good audio processing. Normally during the summer months, this station will appear here with an S-7 to S-8 signal.

The evening surprises were still to come, as a 500 watter from Peru appeared at 0345 on 4775 with a really nice S-7 signal and then a carrier just detected on 4780 minutes later steadily rose in signal strength like a bird lifting from the water, to be identified as Radio Nationale from Djibouti!

To be fair, the reason this station can only be heard here in Texas with such good strength here in the winter is because its location with its local time at GMT plus 3 has its sign on time such that the night path is gone here in the summer time because the sun is just setting then as it is coming on. Thus another explainable reason for winter DX being special is that the paths are more amenable to prop to some locations given those station's schedules.

A few night's later, on what was actually the morning of December 28th GMT, I spent some time tuning the 160 and 80 meter amateur bands for DX during the Canadian contest.( I fish in the ham bands during the various contests because it is a target rich environment that particularly on the low bands, brings out targets not necessarily found on a “ normal night”) Starting about 0230 GMT on the 160 meter band it became apparent that there was not any really enhanced prop yet. While there were many strong Canadian signals, European signals just did not seem to be coming in. Signals from the Northeast US and Canada were very strong with VE3CX at 0249 and VE3EJ at 0254 well over S-9 on 1824 and 1825.6 respectively, both in Ontario Province. But no Europeans were to be heard. I have often noticed that just before Europe starts to prop in on 160 that the Northeast North American stations start to drop in signal strength or start to exhibit deeper fading.

A trip up to 80 meters showed a little more activity, with numerous very strong Candians, like VE1LD from Nova Scotia on 3520 at 0258 GMT at S-9. But even on 80 meters, Europe just wasn't happening. I found OM32WA from Slovak Republic on 3521.1 at 0259 GMT with only a 449 signal followed by SM3LIY from Sweden at 0301 GMT on the same frequency with only a 339 signal working a VE3 moments apart. Other signals on the band within single hop range were quite strong. At 0308 VE6AO from Alberta was S-9 plus 10 db on 3524.4 working VE4YU in Manitoba that was almost S-9. One good logging came at 0310 in the form of WL7E from Alaska on 3527.5. However, he was also not very strong here that evening.

Usually while trolling in contests I will start at the bottom of the band and move up, logging everything I hit. If the stations are calling CQ, I will listen for a couple calls to see if anything interesting responds, then will move up to the next station. With the double 250 Hz filters in the R-75 I can usually log a station every 200-300 Hz during crowded contest conditions. By logging everything coming in, I can later page through the log and get some idea of what was happening with the band in general. A good trick is to find a station near enough to this location calling CQ and holding with him awhile because stations answering him that will prop well to him will also prop well to me. If its a contest where DX stations try to work North Americans, this kind of brings the fish to the hook, as it were. Often this may mean that the semi local station may not be very strong here because he will be in some cases skipping over.

Tiredness coupled with the fact that not much appeared to be happening soon ended the night's listening at 0400 GMT ( 10 PM local time for me). The plan was to get up early the next morning and see if things were better.

But even that plan did not come to fruition. I managed to oversleep sunrise. I believe at that point that the flu that laid me low several days later may have already been nibbling at me because it seemed I was always getting tired. It was about 7:15 AM local time by the time I had the cats fed, the dogs walked and the coffee made.

By that time the sun was up and the lower frequencies had gone silent. I did find the Korean “Voice of the People” on 3480 still coming in strong enough to be identified at 1327 GMT.

I had come across a listing of aviation VOLMET frequencies during some internet searching earlier in the week and on a whim decided to jump up into the 6 mHz range and see if any of them would be audible. It has been years since I had actually sought them out, though I often tune past New York Air Radio between the 10 mHz WWV and the 30 meter ham band as a check to see if the band is open.( there is also a radio teletype signal that I have never identified that appears about 10.101 or so whenever the band is open.

After sweeping up through the 80/75 meter ham band and not finding carriers indicating broadcast stations, not even hearing Radio Nikkei or even Radio Verdad above the top of 75 meters, I knew it was time to jump to the higher frequencies.

Like I said, it had been a number of years since I had searched out the VOLMET frequencies and I do not have anything like a current frequency list book for utility stations, so I started with the sheets I had printed off the internet and unlike my usual method, did not sweep the band, but went looking for specific frequencies and found the following:

1332 GMT New York Radio Volmet 6604 kHz USB 5-7

1336 GMT Koltsovo Volmet 6639 kHz USB 3-3

1340 GMT JIA-Tokyo Volmet 6679 kHz USB 5-5

1341 GMT Novisibirsk Volmet 6693 kHz USB 4-4

1345 GMT VRK-20 Hong Kong 8828 kHz USB 4-4

1347 GMT Samara Volmet, Russia 8888 kHz USB 5-4

Checking the WWV's, I found the 2500 kHz S-9 +10 db with no trace of WWVH...it was already gone. On 5000 kHz, WWV was S-9+30 db, but WWVH was still well audible beneath it. WWV on 10 mHz was only S-9 with lots of fading and WWVH strong behind it.

By now it was 1359 GMT ( just before 7 am local) but VL8A from Alice Springs, Australia was still coming in audibly on 4835. There were Chinese coming in well on 4940 and 4980 and All India Radio was doing OK with audio easily heard on 4970. Checking 49 meters, there was still prop to the Far East with BBC World Service from Thailand well on 5875, VOA via Tinian at S-6 on 5890, Shiokaze radio doing very well on 5910 from Japan and the Voice of Vietnam in well but with lots of rapid fading on 5925 at 1415 GMT. Radio New Zealand was booming in with a good S-9 signal on 5950 just a few minutes later. Breakfast call ended that session ( Hey, there ARE priorities!!)

Shortly after this the flu bug hit, and with a vengeance. I was down over a week with the quacks saying it was the real Swine Flu. My wife ended up contracting it after I did so there was a good couple weeks before there was any significant time spent on the radio.

The next significant radio events in the household occurred on the night of January 16 Texas time, or Jan 17 GMT. Once again while out in the car, I noticed that distant broadcast stations at the high end of the dial were coming in well before sunset. By 5 PM local time, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Waterloo, Iowa stations were coming in well.

It was also going to be a very cold winter's night and there was a 160 meter contest on, so I figured it would be a good night for digging for some low HF DX! The cold night did not disappoint.

Once again cold conditions existed over a good bit of the US with no thunderstorm activity. The bands were very quiet. It turned out to be a watershed night for logging stations.

After dinner and family activities were over, I settled in front of the HQ-170 and the R-75 in tandem began to tune the band. As early as 0210 GMT, 6Y5WJ from Jamaica was rolling in on 1825. Josh was working  VE7SL in BC, Canada with good signals both ways.

The band was flooded with stations. The narrow selectivity position on the Hammurland and the Icom were both pulled in tight and strong semi-local ( meaning Central US) stations were wall to wall, meaning one had to dig for the weak ones under those that were sending the S-meters well over S-9. The strategy began to look for mini pileups of stations and waiting to see who they might be working at the bottom of those stacks.

At 0221 I found one such stack on 1827.5. After logging a half dozen US stations ranging in strength up to S-9 plus 30 DB, I managed to hear the weak one they were calling. It took a few more before I could pull out the call sign, mainly because several stations in a row dropped their callsigns in seeking him without him identifying himself. It turned out to be a real treasure. TF4M in Iceland was coming in about S-4 when he was by himself. It took careful adjustment of the dual passband tuning on the Icom and careful shuffling of the Hammurland's BFO pitch to get him out from under adjacent stations, but there he was!

Iceland and Greenland both are a difficult catch from Texas, either because of the skip distance or the high latitude. There are also no broadcast stations that are likely to be heard here from there and the only chance to get those countries in the log are via the amateur bands or utility stations. Such is the case for many DX entities, so SWL's will often have to go to lengths beyond tuning the SWBC bands to get them!

A side note: Learning the use of passband tuning and other tricks with a receiver are art forms in themselves. Learning how to pull the most out of a receiver comes with patience and experience. The receiver will not do it by itself! The nicest receiver on the planet will not log someone as many stations or countries in the hands of a casual tuner as will an old or lesser receiver in the hands of a seasoned DX-er. It is worth taking time to “practice” around strong signals adjacent to weak ones, or tuning on bands that are in less than optimum condition to learn how to extract the most signal out of a noisy background or from adjacent to a strong one. On old receivers, offsetting the BFO pitch control to put the signals of interest in the best part of the passband is an old trick. Using notch controls or crystal phasing on old boat anchors will do amazing things sometimes. Playing with turning preamps on and off or using attenuators on the lower frequencies can also work wonders. Its like one musician told a man in New York who asked him how to get to Carnegie Hall: “ Practice man, practice!” And learn to listen intently and mentally discriminate. You will learn to ignore the noise or interference with practice. The best filter IS the one between the ears!!

But back to the story at hand. Its a cold night. The stars are bright and sharp in the dark sky. Such nights are indeed magic in more ways than one. Everything is still and when you walk outside the stars do seem like diamonds on velvet. Or if it is cloudy, its like a blanket is over the world and there is the damped feeling of true silence. Radio waves seem to like that. I don't know if its just imagination or hearing the old timers stories about DX on a cold night, but it has always seemed such to me ( Wups, am I falling into that category myself? Surely not!)

Just a few minutes after getting Iceland in the log and updating my countries list, Another pile appeared just up frequency. This one was actually easier because the station was identifying and actually sending a short CQ after each contact. Finland! OH1RX on 1829 at 0229 GMT. This one brought a bit of a celebration. Never had I heard a Scandinavian country on 160 meters or on any band of any type on that low a frequency! The cold winter's night was paying off. And it was just the beginning. There were several other European and Canadian stations added to the log that evening, though no new countries for 160 meters.

As sleepiness was overtaking, a quick trip up to 80 meters resulted in several Bulgarian stations being logged. While 160 meters was embroiled in its own single band contest, it appeared a Bulgarian contest was underway elsewhere. In less than five minutes, LZ9W, LZ8E, LZ2VU, LZ4A and near neighbor 9A1A from Croatia jumped into the log all within a couple kilohertz of 3525.

The next weekend was another cold one and another great time on 160 meters. Once again the broadcast stations had been in early. Once again it was very cold and the space heater was lit in the sunroom where the radios were set up. Once again the bands were dead quiet.

It was a fairly late start on the night of January 24 Texas time, the morning of January 25 GMT. It was after 9 PM local or 0300 GMT when I settled in front of the lighted dials of the HQ-170 and the R-75. Stateside signals were not as strong as the previous weekend, leading me to initially think it would not be that good of a night. However, it might have been that prop was just long because within minutes I heard Ecuador in the form of HD2A at 0318 on 1803. A good start! Ecuador was not a new country by any means, having been one of the first to be logged early in my shortwave listening career with HCJB all over the place and numerous stations in the tropical bands and probably hundreds of stations on the various amateur bands. But still a good catch on 160.

There were other signs of a good night ahead. The VE7's from British Columbia were much stronger than the Midwest stations. The same with the VE1's, the Nova Scotia station heard, and Prince Edward Island. One station in Georgia that I have heard and worked many times on the amateur bands while transmitting was actually well below his usual signal strength. He could usually be counted on to be well over S-9 and was only about S-6 and fading up and down. What was this??

The answer was soon in coming when I found a small pileup on 1810 and at the bottom of it was LZ0M from Bulgaria at 0324. Not very strong, but not difficult to pull out, either. Just up the dial about 750 Hz pounding in was Caribbean band regular KV4FZ from the Virgin Islands.

About ten minutes later, another new country for 160 meter DX listening popped into the log in the form of OM2VL from the Slovak Republic on 1816 at 0335. It was the beginning of a great run. Listed below are the highlights>

0345 S52AW 1827.3 Slovenia 559
0348 CS2C 1830.6 Portugal 559
0352 EA5BM 1831.5 Spain 569
0353 PJ2T 1832.4 Curacao 579
0354 3V8BB 1836 Tunisia 559 ( This was a surprise...great log entry!!!)
0356 9A3M 1823.2 Croatia 549
0358 ZF2KE 1837.2 Cayman Is. 589
0358/30 XE2S 1837.2 Mexico 599 ( working the ZF2)
0359 S59A 1833.4 Slovenia 549
0400 6Y3M 1834 Jamaica 589
0401 G6MC 1834 England 559 ( working the 6Y3)
0404 OM7M 1836.3 Slovak Rep 559
0407 I4WH 1839 Italy 559/579 QSB
0411 I4CEA 1840.35 Italy 569
0414 OK2W 1842.1 Czech rep 549
0415 IQ5TT 1843.4 Italy 579
0416 NP2X 1844.5 Virgin Is 589

About that time, fatigue began setting in, excitement or no. My usual day begins with me rising at 4 AM to get ready for work and by now the eyelids are getting heavy. And there is also the old feeling about knowing how to keep the hobby alive by “ leaving some for next time”.

The next morning, I returned to the radio about 6 am local or 1200 GMT for another slide through the band. I logged a few JA's beginning at 1222 all working the same US station that was calling CQ and attracting the Japanese crowd. In quick succession JA7FNO,JL3JRY and JH1OAI were in the log.

The band shortened up quickly after that and the stateside stations began to really gain in strength, with the West Coast being stronger and the East Coast first coming up, then beginning to fall in strength. It sometimes happens that way.

That night family matters took the forefront but the next morning, the 26th GMT, I was up at 5 AM local time (1100 GMT) and after feeding the animals ( cats are NOT to be denied when they want breakfast) and walking the dogs ( it was very cold and they did not tarry!!) I had the coffee on and the receivers warming up. The space heater in the sun room was on full and even at that it was cold and I had bundled up pretty well.

At first I thought it would be a fruitless morning. Stateside was strong with only a few Canadians showing up. Then I began to “feel” the band begin to shift. Its funny how one can sense things changing. The West Coast stations...the W7's..began getting stronger, then the VE7's and sure enough at 1136 GMT I found a pile of stations working RW0CF in Asiatic Russia. It took awhile to dig him out strong enough to claim him as logged. A check of the QRZ.com data base showed him to be in Khabarovsk, inland a ways and West of Japan. Perhaps the JA's would show up. He was very weak and it took listening through his ID's about a dozen times to pick it out.

I began to think it was an anomaly because I found nothing more but West Coast stations for the next several minutes, until JA1YDX turned up on 1816 at 1146, but also very, very weak.. Then it was again slim pickings for almost 20 minutes with strong stateside stations and the only DX showing up ZF2KE on Cayman and XE1TD in Mexico. ( and from Texas, that is hardly DX!)

Shortly after the top of the 1200 hour GMT, another pileup appeared on 1823.2. Again the station at the bottom of the pile was very weak and it took about ten minutes of intense listening to pull out an ID for NH0Z on Saipan. It looked like there would be a few things but it would be tough. I was afraid the morning was going to turn out like the day before with the band just dying early, or perhaps never really opening as the sun set in Asia.

But the lesson learned that morning was not to give up too soon! Once again the US 7's began to get stronger and then fade up and down a bit. At 1220 KL7KY from Alaska appeared on 1834.3 with a bit of a fluttery sound, like auroral effects, but peaked about an S-7 when he was up. I decided to stay around even though the thought of breakfast was calling. At the worst I would pick up a few states I needed if the band didn't stretch out. It was a good thing I did.

About ten minutes later, JH7PFD appeared on 1817.2 working a W4. Then at 1227 JA8PPC showed up calling CQ on 1819.4 and began to get a few takers. He Started out down in the grass and I was just lucky to find him in a fairly clear spot. As I listened, he climbed from barely audible to a respectable S-6.

Thus began a good run and some real excitement over the next half hour.

1234 GMT JA3YBK 1816 559
1242 GMT JH1MDJ 1813.7 449
1243 GMT JH7IMX 1813.7 449
1244 GMT JA2LCP 1813.7 549 ( These 3 all worked the same US stn)

But then came the high point of the morning up to that point. There was a pretty good pile on 1822. Several US stations were trying to work someone and he was just not copying them. Apparently they were as weak over there as he was here. Finally things thinned out a bit and I was able to pull out his callsign. A new one!! HL5IVL in South Korea! That one was celebrated with a “whoop” and a run to refill the coffee cup.

By now it was almost 7 AM local time and the sky was lightening up a bit as the sun was starting to rise. The East Coast stations were dropping way down, but the JA's were still in, albeit not very strong. I came across KL7KY again and he had climbed to almost S-9. With that being taken as a good sign, I decided to hang in and continue to tune. At straight up 7 AM local, 1300 GMT, JA1HGY appeared on 1813.36. He worked the KL7 along with several other stateside stations and other JA's. The ones I could copy were JA6JEW at 1304, JH1MDJ at 1307, JA9FHB at 1308, and JN7FNS at 1311. Sometimes this is a good strategy to find a station that the DX wants and just stay with him and let the targets come to you!

By now the sun is up. I am still hearing the West Coast, but one last JA at 1317 is so weak I can barely hear him...JE1ZWT on 1819. OK, just a couple more. I ran across a local station in town who almost bounced my headphones off my head calling CQ on 1820...K5LH, an excellent CW operator. I almost shut down at that point, but thought I would continue up through the DX window and maybe get one more before putting the bacon in the pan.

I got up to 1824.8 and the band was empty. But there was one station calling CQ with a call ending in “ DX” and stateside stations starting to get on him with “??” and “QRZ?”'s. Most gave up. It was too bad. But then  he managed to climb up for about 30 seconds and the ID was plain: BA5DX. Whoa! China logged on 160 meters. And it was light outside! The West Coast guys soon found him and he had plenty of company.

What a morning. Three new countries and some real DX in the SWL log. The cold winters night ( and morning. Brrrr!!!) had once again paid off. Maybe its not just legend....

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