“The bat takes airy rounds on leathern wings,
And the hoarse owl his woeful dirges sings…”
— John Gay, English poet and dramatist, The Shepherd’s Week, 1714
It’s become an urban ritual in Austin, the Texas capital.
In the evening shortly before dusk, hundreds of people — some wearing buttons and T-shirts saying “Ask Me About Bats!” — gather at a bridge over Town Lake on Congress
Avenue to witness one of the great natural phenomena in Texas: hundreds of thousands of of Mexican free-tailed bats setting out to forage for insects in the night sky.
The Congress Avenue Bridge, amid the high-rises of downtown Austin, is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America — estimated at 1.5 million. Each night, from mid-March to November, they emerge from under the bridge at dusk to hunt for insects, consuming between 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of bugs every night.
The nightly emergence — lasting as long as 45 minutes — has become one of the state’s most unusual and spectacular tourist attractions. The best time for bat-watching is during the hot, dry nights in August, when the bat pups, born in June or July, join their mothers on the nocturnal forays.
Our transcontinental bicycle ride should bring us to Austin on Oct. 23 for a rest day on Oct. 24. That’s the tail-end of the bat-watching season. The bats start migrating to Mexico in late October and early November when the weather gets too chilly for them in Austin.
Bats have been hanging around in Austin for many years, but renovations to the Congress Avenue Bridge in 1980 created perfect accommodations for the leathern-winged hunters — narrow, deep openings in the bridge structure.
Bat-watching is now a signature event in Austin, but the locals didn’t at first embrace the creepy critters and petitioned the city to remove them. Bat Conservation International, a local organization dedicated to the protection of bats and their ecosystems, came to the bats’ rescue. The group educated the community about the gentle migrants, particularly on their value in controlling the populations of mosquitoes and other pesky summertime insects.
Austinites — many of whom like to quote a slogan often seen on bumper stickers and T-shirts, “Keep Austin Weird” — have rallied around their warm-weather sojourners in recent years.
The Austin American-Statesman, whose building is on the south bank of Town Lake, has dedicated an area beside the bridge for bat observation. And a bat sculpture, created by local artist Dale Whistler, sits at the southern end of the bridge as a tribute to one of Austin’s weirdest attractions.
The bats normally emerge from under the bridge between 8 and 8:30 p.m., but the show could begin earlier or later. For the best viewing times, call the Bat Hotline at 512-416-5700, ext. 3636.
Some facts about bats from Bat Conservation International:
— Bats can live to be 30 years old.
— Mother bats give birth to a single pup each year. The pup’s birth weight is nearly one-third that of its mother.
— Bats are mammals and nurse the pups from mammary glands. Each female recognizes her pup’s voice and smell and will nurse only her pup.
— During migrations to Mexico and back, bats may reach an altitude of 10,000 feet and speeds of 60 miles per hour.
See the video below.