Star Gazing at the Prairie

Greg Beckner, with the Alachua Astronomy Club, adjusts his telescope for the next person to look through during Star Gazing at the Prairie with the AAC at Hickory Ranch, in Micanopy, Jan. 21, 2012. The event was sponsored by the Friends of Paynes Prairie.

Brad McClenny/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 9:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 9:41 p.m.

The importation of Florida "cracker" cattle, the effects of this year's drought on the prairie and the rusty red color of baby bison were all topics of conversation amid the stargazing Saturday at Paynes Prairie's Hickory Ranch.

The event took place on a patch of land not ordinarily open to the public at the southeast region of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. Hayrides pulled by tractors, piles upon piles of s'mores and access to large stargazing telescopes were provided to the public for a $5 fee.

The Florida Park Service and the Friends of Paynes Prairie, a nonprofit citizen support organization, sponsored the event.

"This is probably the largest event that we have," said Bill Andrews, president of Friends of Paynes Prairie.

According to Andrews, 550 people registered for stargazing this year, a number much larger than the 350 who attended last year.

"Last year was brutal," said Andrews, referring to the freezing cold temperatures that greeted stargazers on the prairie in 2011. The weather on Saturday night was a mild 60 degrees, with slightly cloudy skies. Most called it a "perfect night." However, the astronomers among the hundreds of guests were not so pleased.

"It's not perfect, it's awfully cloudy," said Tandy Carter, school liaison of the Alachua Astronomy Club. "When we were setting up, there was a lot of high cloud, which hurts the viewing."

Still, families flooded in, crowding around the spitting flames of the fire pit and rushing to get a seat on the hayrides.

A lone bison stood at the gate of the basin, welcoming hay riders into the prairie for their moonlit safari into an ordinarily off-limits area of the park.

"The bison are coming closer this year because of the drought," said one volunteer.

Wild horses, bison and cattle made their way in and out of the Florida scrub as the tractor pulled a trailer full of wide-eyed spectators into the darkness. Children and parents alike craned their necks trying to catch a glimpse of wildlife through the brush.

"There is no guarantee that we will see them, because they're allowed to roam wherever they like on the prairie," said Ranger Emory Maxwell.

A red light beamed through the darkness at the front of the tractor.

"Using a red light will help you from losing your night vision," one volunteer told a little girl who perched on a hay bale with a flashlight.

Ranger Maxwell called everyone's attention to the right side of the trailer. Beyond the fence, a herd of "cracker" cattle grazed not more than 10 feet away. The cattle's eyes were large and glassy in the spectators' lights, Spanish moss draping from their horns.

The stargazing event has occurred annually over the past few years, with consistent support from the Alachua Astronomy Club.

"Even if it doesn't increase our membership, it helps improve the knowledge of the general public for astronomy. And who knows, maybe one of these kids that are running around might be the next Stephen Hawking," Carter said.

"If we choose our targets right, we get a lot of ‘oh, wows.' They all get a big kick out of seeing the moon and the planets, so those are real high on our priority lists," he said. "That one ‘oh, wow' (makes it) worth it."

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