Most people associate Austin, Texas with the outstanding music scene and industry that is there or the “Longhorns” of the University of Texas at Austin, however, there is something else incredible that resides in the heart of the city and that is a colony of over 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats.
I had previously read and heard about this anomaly which is the largest urban bat colony in the world but I had never witnessed it so I decided to check that one of my bucket list as I was in town on business. I made my way from I-35 over to Congress Street and then I drove down it and across Lady Bird Lake to Riverside Drive and the “Long Center for the Performing Arts” where there is a great public parking garage. I parked there and then walked across the street to Butler Park and made my way down to the Lady Bird Lake bike and foot trail.
It was about an hour before sundown and it was a warm October evening. A few clouds were in the sky and as the sun began to set it turned the interesting glass and steel architecture of the downtown skyline to gold and it reflected beautifully in Lady Bird Lake. There were all kinds of people outside enjoying the open areas near the lake and running, walking and biking along the trails.
I walked along the trail east and under the Ann W. Richards – Congress Avenue Bridge. I walked under the bridge and found that on the east side of the south abutment of the bridge, there is a round grassy hill where people gather to watch the bats emerge from their perches each night. There were interpretive signs there that told much information about these mammals.
I learned that each evening about 20 min. prior to sundown, 1.5 million bats stream out of the bridge and go foraging for insects. These winged varmints consume anywhere from 10,000 – 30,000 pounds of insects each night! One adult bat is capable of eating over 600 mosquitoes in an hour! These bats made this bridge their home back in 1980 when the deck of the bridge was refurbished.
When this was done there were 16 inch crevasses created in the concrete running the length of the bridge. Apparently, the temperature and humidity in these crevasses is perfect for female bats to raise their young. Over 750,000 female bats give birth to a single pup each on an annual basis at this bridge.
Each spring these bats migrate up from Mexico and then around November, they migrate back down to warmer areas for the winter. As I stood there listening to the un-seen bats chattering, waiting for them to come out, appreciating the graceful arches of the Congress Avenue bridge, a few singular “blinks” of colored light occurred as the various lighting decorations of the downtown skyscrapers came on… neon white here, blue over there red and gold lights.
More people began to gather at the site and hundreds of people were up on the bridge looking over the railing in anticipation of the great nightly bat flight. Pleasure craft and tour boats milled about in the water and it was warm with a slight breeze. Just then a deaf guy came up to me and tried to sell me a button, I waved him off and then thought about it again and thought “what the heck” and summoned him back.
I asked him through gestures how much and he handed me a button. I looked at the card with it and it stated “I made these buttons to earn a living and any money would be appreciated” I gladly handed him some money and took my button that showed bats flying over the bridge. On the back of the card was the American Sign Language alphabet with pictures.
I thought this was very cool and I thanked him. He was very grateful and he motioned that I should go up on the bridge to the first light pole cause that vantage point was much better. I took this expert advice and climbed the stairs up to the bridge deck and sidewalk near the first pole.
All of a sudden, bats began emerging from under the bridge… they looked like a bunch of black butterflies or leaves that were being blown by some big fan somewhere. The stream of bats was ever increasing until there was a constant “Bat River” coming out from under the bridge and down Lady Bird Lake.
This Bat River looked like a hoard of locust off in the distance and the flow of bats continued for about 10 min from various locations under the bridge. This was truly an amazing sight to behold. I’ve seen a bat here and there exploring an old mine or cave but I’ve never seen hundreds of thousands of them pouring out from under an urban bridge with skyscrapers reflecting colored light in the water.
It was incredible. If you are interested in witnessing the Bat exodus… the best times according to the information are from March to October with August being the best. If you go there, it is highly recommended that you do not touch any bats because you can injure them and they may harbor disease. These bats are of extreme importance to the Austin environment as they devour tons of pests every night.
There is actually a “Bat Hotline” you can call for viewing information. The number is 512-416-5700 and then enter 3636. You can also find all kinds of useful information concerning Austin, TX on the website http://www.austin360.com. You can find all kinds of information on http://www.batcon.org/ Bat Conservation International. I’ve seen a lot of things in my travels but this one makes my most unusually amazing list. Go to Austin and witness a true anomaly of nature in a truly beautiful setting.