Q: What flies at speeds of 60 mph, eats 200 million pounds of insects in a single night, and attracts thousands of tourists to Texas every year?
A: Mexican free-tailed bats!
Texas is home to 32 of the United States’ 45 bat species, but by far the most numerous are Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasilensis). Approximately 100 million bats of this species alone live in Central Texas from April through October, patrolling the night skies, dining on pesky insects (including moths that attack farmers’ crops and mosquitoes), and congregating to form some of the world’s largest bat colonies.
If you enjoy sitting outside your RV in the evenings, you’ve probably seen them swooping down and feeding above the treetops and around streelights, or even taking a sip of water from the RV park’s pool.
Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge, one of the most popular eco-tourism sites in the state, is home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. More than 100,000 people from around the world visit every year.
Other awesome spectacles can be found across Texas, including the world’s largest bat colony at Bracken Cave near San Antonio. Natural Bridge Caverns, mentioned in last week’s cave post, hosts guided tours to the cave where 20 million bats surge from beneath the earth in a cloud so thick it can be detected on Doppler radar.
Texas Parks and Wildlife also offers lots of great RV camping spots complete with exciting bat-watching experiences at abandoned railroad tunnels and caves, and still others are located on private property. Clearly, bats are not just for Halloween anymore. They are good for the environment, good for the economy, and most important, they’re good old-fashioned family fun.
August is prime time for bat watching in Texas, because the young pups start flying with the moms, creating an even bigger spectacle as the bats emerge at dusk. Public viewing sites at Texas’ caves, tunnels, and bridges offer a personal, unforgettable experience with some of nature’s most misunderstood creatures.
Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin
Located about a mile south of state capitol, this is the world’s largest urban colony with 1.5 million bats. Find a spot at the Austin American-Statesman’s observation area at southeast corner of bridge, or join a sight-seeing cruise Lady Bird Lake. My absolute favorite way to watch is to rent one of the little electric boats from Capital Cruises, pack a nice dinner and a bottle of wine, and cruise the lake until sunset. The bats generally fly around dusk, but remember, these are wild animals that don’t adhere to human schedules.
Eckert James River Bat Cave, Mason
Managed by The Nature Conservancy of Texas, the cave is home to approximately four million bats. Tours run Thursday-Sunday, from 6 p.m.- 9 p.m. Some sunrise tours of the bats returning from their nocturnal hunts are also offered.
Frio Cave, Concan
This is the state’s second largest colony, with 10 to 12 million bats. Guided tours cost $12 per person. For a full schedule, visit: http://www.friobatflight.com/
Texas Parks and Wildlife
Texas Parks and Wildlife hosts several bat-watching sites. Contact the parks or visit department website for details. Hours, fees, and restrictions vary.
Clarity Tunnel, Caprock Canyons State Park, Quitaque
Devil’s Sinkhole, Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area, Rocksprings
Old Tunnel State Park, Sisterdale
Stuart Bat Cave, Kickapoo Cavern State Park, Brackettville
Add a stop at a bat cave to your next road trip and enjoy one of nature’s most amazing shows!