The sky darkened. The temperature dropped 10 degrees. The birds stopped singing, and hundreds of people gazed skyward through telescopes and Mylar screens Tuesday morning at the Moorpark College Observatory as the moon partially blocked out the sun.
"Look at the light," said Dick Nelson, 73, looking at the landscape around the observatory as the sun cast a dim twilight-like yellow glow. "It's eerie and magical."
Clouds and fingers of fog obscured the spectacle of the last solar eclipse of the century for thousands of Ventura County residents.
But more than 300 people who gathered next to Moorpark College's small observatory were treated to a clear view of the eclipse's magical light during the nearly three-hour show as the moon passed in front of the sun.
Nelson, a retired electrical engineer from Simi Valley, who has been an amateur astronomer since high school, has avidly pursued solar eclipses all over the world. On Tuesday, he held up his hands and nodded toward the shadows created when the sun filtered between his fingers.
As the moon reached the point of covering nearly 75% of the sun, the diminishing light sharpened the shadows. Using his criss-crossed fingers to imitate a pinhole camera, Nelson allowed the light to project tiny crescent images of the partially eclipsed sun on the ground.
"Look at the shadow of that tree," he said, unclasping his fingers and pointing to the crescents in the shadows of tree branches. "It's like a thousand dancing suns."
The eclipse seen in Moorpark only covered about four-fifths of the sun. But in a 150-mile-wide swath of North America from Baja, Mexico, to New England, observers were treated to an annular eclipse, where the moon blotted out all but the sun's fiery rim.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon, moving in its orbit around the Earth, slips in front of the sun.
While Tuesday was the last solar eclipse visible in Ventura County for some time--the next total eclipse is not due until 2019--a visually interesting, but much less rare lunar eclipse will occur on May 24.
On Tuesday, Hal Jandorf, an astronomy instructor at Moorpark College, said he was disappointed that more people did not come to view the phenomenon.
"It bothers me when people don't seem to care about something like this," Jandorf said. "Even the animals know something is up. I try to popularize this stuff because I love it, and it's great to see someone get interested in it and realize it's something special."
Taking the opportunity to see the last visible partial eclipse in Ventura County this century, astronomy buffs and second- and third-grade students from Campus Canyon Elementary School in Moorpark held up Mylar screens and glass, and used welding goggles to protect their eyes while gazing at the sun.
Even while he set up his telescope, Jandorf made sure a filter covered his lens.
"It can burn your eyes instantly or damage the telescope," he said.
Jandorf propped up one large telescope next to a white screen at the observatory's 126-seat outdoor amphitheater, and used it to project the shadow of the moon as it slowly "took bites" out of the sun. Some of the young students took turns looking up through a few hand-held Mylar screens.
"Awesome," said Anthony Medwetz, 9. "It looks bad."
Sitting next to him, his friend, Steve Serrano, 9, grabbed the Mylar to take a look. Steve was surprised by what he saw.
"I thought it was a joke or a trick or something," he said. "It was cool, though."
In Los Angeles on Tuesday, about four-fifths of the sun was covered by a black crescent at the height of the eclipse at 9 a.m. If you could see it.
About 600 schoolchildren and 200 adults at the Griffith Observatory had to be quick to see anything when drifting clouds made the eclipse suddenly appear--and then just as suddenly fade away.
"It popped through the clouds a few times," said Bob Kline, 39, a graphic artist from Huntington Beach, who had attached a camcorder to a telephoto lens in hopes of recording the eclipse. "But I certainly didn't run out of videotape--I guess that's the bright side."
Czernic Crute, a telephone technician from South-Central Los Angeles, brought along two telescopes. But there was no use for them.
"It never got bright enough to use our equipment," he said.
Griffith Observatory astronomer Patrick So stood holding a pair of king-sized binoculars attached to a cone-like device designed to project the eclipse on a small screen. There was little call for it, either.
The sky was crystal-clear in Lancaster, where he lives, So explained. In fact, clouds didn't appear until he drove into Los Angeles shortly after dawn. He was tempted to turn around.
"But duty called and I came here," he said. "Eclipses can be a hit-or-miss thing."
Times staff writer Bob Pool contributed to this story.
The Moorpark College Observatory and the Ventura County Astronomical Society are inviting those interested in viewing a May 24 lunar eclipse to observe the spectacle through the observatory's telescopes. For information, call the astronomical society's Star Line at 529-7813.