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Going Batty in Austin

The D.E.A.L.: Dining, Entertainment, Attractions & Lodging by Jeanne Brei

With the largest urban bat colony in North America, Austin has one of the most unusual and fascinating tourist attractions anywhere. Up to 1.5 million bats emerge nightly from the underside of the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge about 20 minutes before sundown. The emergence can last up to 45 minutes and it’s like a cloud flying toward the east—they can fly up to 100 miles round trip in an evening. They are built for speed with short fur and long narrow wings and can fly up to 60 miles per hour with a tail wind.

The Austin American-Statesman created the Statesman Bat Observation Center adjacent to the Congress Bridge, giving visitors a dedicated area to view the nightly emergence. It is estimated that more than 100,000 people visit the bridge to witness the bat flight each season (March-October).  The hillside below the bridge is a little more kid-friendly since you can spread out a blanket and even have a picnic while you wait. From this perspective, you’ll get a close-up view as they emerge, but then they quickly disappear over the trees that border the lake. Also, on the hillside, you do run a slight risk of being bombarded by a little bat pee or poop (aka guano). It’s rarely more than a sprinkle, but it does happen.

You can get an even better view from the water. You can rent kayaks and canoes by the hour from several businesses along the shoreline. Some of them even provide knowledgeable guides who share fun facts about the bats as you paddle. Capital Cruises also has two large tour boats for groups.

The bats migrate each spring from central Mexico to various roosting sites throughout the southwestern U.S. Most of the colony is female, and in early June each one gives birth to a single baby bat, called a pup. The pups are usually ready to fly by mid-August, which means the black cloud of bats emerging from the bridge is even more impressive during this time. In fact, the size of the colony virtually doubles because almost all of the bats that roost at the bridge are female. The males of the species usually roost in separate colonies.

A redesign of the bridge in 1980 created crevices on the underside of the structure that were the perfect size for cozy bat homes. At the time, many Austin residents despised and feared the bats and tried to have the colony eradicated. Fortunately, Merlin Tuttle brought Bat Conservation International to Austin and told the city the surprising truth: that bats are gentle and incredibly sophisticated animals; that bat-watchers have nothing to fear if they don’t try to handle bats; and that on the nightly flights out from under the bridge, the Austin bats eat from 10,000 to 20,000 pounds of insects, including agricultural pests. And now Austinites love their bat colony so much they’ve created a Bat Fest, which this year will be held August 18 on the Congress Avenue Bridge. There will be live music, a costume contest, children’s activities and more.

Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge Bats, 100 S. Congress Ave., Austin, TX 78704 Telephone: (512) 327-9721. For more info, visit https://www.tripsavvy.com/austins-bat-bridge-a-viewing-guide-254880

This story originally appeared in the July/August issue of Exhibit City News, p. 84. For more pictures and original layout, visit http://issuu.com/exhibitcitynews/docs/ecnflipbook_julyaugust2018_web?e=16962537/62860459

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