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Austin: Seasonal Home to Millions of Migratory Bats

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Austin: Seasonal Home to Millions of Migratory Bats

By Max McNabb

Austin is becoming known as the city of the bat. An estimated 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats call the Congress Avenue bridge home during summer months. This is the largest urban colony in North America. In fact, bats outnumber people in Austin with the city’s human population only 900,000. Before sundown each evening the bats depart from their roosts beneath the bridge and fly out in black clouds against the Austin skyline. Their flights are a major tourist attraction. Every summer night bat watchers line the bridge and lounge on the grassy slope below.

Austin: Seasonal Home to Millions of Migratory Bats

Photo: Wikipedia

The colony is composed of mostly females. In June, the females gives birth to a single “pup.” These hairless pink pups learn to fly after about five weeks and begin to hunt insects. By mid-August, the cloud of bats swarming out from under the bridge is at its most impressive. The Congress Avenue Bridge, also known as the Ann W. Richards Bridge, crosses Lady Bird Lake in Austin. The lake itself is an impounding of the Colorado River. The bridge is a concrete arch with several lanes of north- and south-bound traffic and sidewalks along both sides.

It underwent a redesign in the 1980s. Before this time, a small number of bats had been living beneath the bridge. The redesign created crevices, gaps between the concrete component structures under the bridge. The bats soon discovered these recesses made ideal homes. As thousands of bats started roosting under the bridge, Austin grew alarmed. There were fears the bats would bring disease. Demands were made for their extermination. Fortunately the bats quickly endeared themselves to Austin and have become symbols of the city, valued for the efforts in keeping mosquitos and other insect populations down. The bats eat about 20 thousand pounds of bugs during their nightly hunts.

Austin: Seasonal Home to Millions of Migratory Bats

Photo: Wikipedia

Attitudes regarding the bats may have been hostile in the 1980s, but they were nothing compared to what Austinites thought back in the 1880s. In the 19th century, bats roosting in Austin attics and downtown building caused citizens to view them as “winged nuisances.” The Statesman called for the legislature to issue a bounty for their destruction. In 1885 a marksman and former member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show by the name of William Frank “Doc” Carver boasted he would shoot 1,000 bats in 80 minutes.

Dr. Carver was an ex-dentist who performed in traveling shooting exhibitions. A big crowd gathered at dusk in what is today Hyde Park. When the bats took to the skies, Dr. Carver fired his repeating shotgun again and again. “It fairly seemed to rain bats,” The Statesman said, “but the slaughter never ceased.” Dr. Carver killed his 1,000 bats with two minutes to spare. Justice of the Peace Von Rosenberg then promptly fined him for hunting without a license.

Austin: Seasonal Home to Millions of Migratory Bats

Photo: Wikipedia

From March to October, the bats emerge and fly east over the lake. The most convenient parking is the lot near the Austin American-Statesman office, though a fee is charged. A free lot is located a quarter mile west beside the South 1st Street bridge. Be sure to arrive at the viewing area early before a large crowd gathers—remember the event attracts 100,000 tourists annually. 30 minutes to an hour before sunset is recommend at peak season. The best viewing sites are the walkway along the east side of the bridge or above the water southeast of the bridge.

The hillside down below is also a good spot, though here the bats quickly disappear over the tree surrounding the lake. You should also bring a hat or blanket if you’re viewing from the hill, as the bats occasional drop guano on this area. You can also view the flight from the water. Kayaks and canoes are available for rental along the shoreline, some with guides offering informal tours of the downtown skyline and facts about the bats. Several excellent Austin restaurants are located within walking distance of the bridge.

Austin: Seasonal Home to Millions of Migratory Bats

Photo: Wikipedia

The Austin Bat Festival is an annual event. Bat fans travel to the Texas capitol every summer to attend. In 2010, actor Adam West was on hand for the Night of the Bat. In the 1960s, West starred as Batman and made his campy version of Caped Crusader a classic. Back in 1966, Austin hosted the world premiere of Batman the Movie. It’s only appropriate that the city welcomed Adam West back to celebrate the bats of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

Be sure to contact Bat Conservation International at 512-327-9721 for viewing times or consult their website before heading out to see the bats. The bats migrate to Mexico in the winter, leaving the bridge empty. The best viewing dates are April to October.