Texas Hill Country Bat Wars Coming to a Cave Near You

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Tony Maples Photography


Last night, tens of millions of European corn borer moths took to the skies, headed for the vast fields of the mid-west, their intent to lay billions of eggs on corn and other crops. The eggs will grow into destructive, corn eating worms. Rising to meet them from small limestone caves around the Hill Country are small flying mammals, the Mexican free tail bat, numbering in the millions. The bats engage the enemy at 10,000 feet, and it is a free-wheeling battle, with each bat taking 30 or more moths in each sortie from their cave.

Fighters Leaving the Bat Cave

James River Bats Leave Cave

Photo: Robert Deming

This is the scene at 6:30 p.m. in mid-July, as up to 5,000,000 (yes, 5 million) Mexican free tail bats leave the Eckert James River Bat Preserve for their nightly hunt. They are all females, and come out in as many as five different sections (colonies), each one led by the oldest mother. On the ground below, coach whip snakes named Miss Hiss, Sir Hiss, and Licorice Baby Hiss; Rocky Raccoon, Geraldine Skunk, Rudolph Roadrunner, and Perry Opossum wait for the inevitable collisions to bring a bat to them.

James River Bat in Glove

Photo: Robert Deming

Vicki, the Nature Conservancy Steward, snags a bat to show visitors.  They are small and very light but endowed with great strength, endurance, and flying ability. They locate moths using a very sophisticated echo-location organ, eat the moth but spit out the wings.  Each bat eats its weight in insects on each sortie from the cave. Vicki’s talk delights everyone from young children to grandparents.

Bats on Doppler Weather Radar

Bats on Radar

Weather radar picks up bats: Frio Cave (A), Bracken Cave (B), and the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas (C).  This drama plays out nightly from May through September in the Hill Country.

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