Bat Watching in Texas

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!

Mexican Free-tailed Bats in FlightTexas 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.

Bat FlightTexas 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

Congress Avenue BridgeLocated 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!

~ G. Elaine Acker

 

 

 

 

Texas Cave Tours

Texas’s Show Caves are Cool Works of Art

Christmas Tree Room

No tour of the Caverns of Sonora is complete without a visit to the Christmas Tree Room! Many thanks to the Caverns for letting us post their gorgeous photos!

I didn’t realize until I started working on this blog post that I’ve visited nearly every commercial show cave in Texas. Add that to the time I’ve spent in wild caves crawling along behind my biologist friends, and I’ve racked up a quite a few memorable hours underground.

One of my friends asked me recently to name my favorite cave. Honestly? I have two answers: 1) whichever cave is closest, and 2) the one that gets me out of the summer heat! The temperature in most of the caves is a comfy, 60-something degrees.  Ahhh!

Butterfly formation

This natural butterfly formation at the Caverns of Sonora is famous worldwide. Photo courtesy Caverns of Sonora.

So here’s my recommendation for your next RV camping excursion. Find a park near a commercial cave and enjoy a guided tour or two. In addition to the show cave tours, several of the commercial tour operators are now offering wild cave tours. And, many also specialized tours for photography, natural history, or geology buffs.

Here are a few suggestions:

Caverns of Sonora

After seeing the Caverns for the first time, National Speleological Society co-founder, Bill Stephenson said, “Its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by Texans.” In 1966 the site was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior, and is one of the most active caves in the world with over 95% of its formations still “growing”. There’s an RV park located right in the center of the working ranch that surrounds the caverns, so plan to take a nice long break here. It’s the perfect stopover on I-10 between San Antonio and Big Bend National Park.

Longhorn Cavern State Park

If you visit Longhorn Cavern, you’ll learn all about its history as an underground saloon and dance hall. While you’re in the area, I’d suggest camping at Ink’s Lake State Park and enjoying some time in the water too. I just checked, and this lake is full and inviting!

Inner Space Cavern

Inner Space Cavern

Photo courtesy Inner Space Cavern. Thanks so much for the sneak peek!

Inner Space Cavern

Photo courtesy Inner Space Cavern. Gorgeous!

Inner Space Cavern

Photo Courtesy Inner Space Cavern.

This was the first commercial cavern I ever visited. When the guide told the story of the cavern’s discovery in 1963, I could only imagine what it would’ve been like to be that first adventurous TXDOT employee who dropped into the pitch-black void while standing on a drill bit. You’ll hear the whole story on the tour! It’s located just north of Austin.

Natural BridgNatural Bridge Cavernse Caverns

This one’s just 30 minutes north of San Antonio, and they’ve got several specialized tours on the list. They’re also planning a zip line, so be sure to ask about that as well! While you’re in the area, you can continue the “keep cool” theme by camping at Guadalupe River State Park and doing a little tubing.

 

Cave Without a Name

Guadalupe River State Park is also a great “home base” for this cave excursion, or, check out one of the RV parks in Fredericksburg and do a little shopping too. The cave is located just 12 miles from Boerne.

Moon Milk Falls

Moon Milk Falls. Photo courtesy Caverns of Sonora.

I’m forever in awe of the crystalline formations, stalactites and stalagmites, which decorate Texas’s Hill Country caves. I love the inky blackness when they briefly turn out the lights, and I love the history and folklore the guides share on each tour. It’s the perfect summer outing!

Which caves have you visited? Which is your favorite? Let us know!

~ Elaine