Austin Bats Take Flight
Catch a glimpse of the Congress Avenue Bridge spectacle before it’s too late
by Fred Mays
First there are a few, then hundreds, quickly followed by thousands. Soon the sky is dotted with over a million bats off on their nightly forage for food. They’re cheered on by hundreds of spectators who crowd the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin. Hundreds more line the banks of Lady Bird Lake, and even more watch from tour boats in the water.
But if you want to see them, you have to hurry. Come November the bats are off on their annual winter migration to Mexico. The bats are a major part of Austin’s life from March to November. There are bat t-shirts, a bat statue, bats on website home pages. Austin is a little batty.
The Halloween image is one of rabid bats that are bloodthirsty predators, preying on terrified humans. Not likely to happen. Their nightly diet consists of mosquitos and other pesky insects. No humans have been harmed in the nightly bat phenomenon.
Bats are a big deal, even big business in town. An estimated 1.5 million migrating Mexican free-tail bats take up residence under the bridge. They have spawned an eco-tourism niche that, by several estimates, contributes $10-million to the local economy every year. According to Dewitt Peart, CEO of Downtown Austin Business Alliance, the “bats are an iconic feature of the city for residents and visitors alike.” He estimates they draw 100-thousand visitors to the downtown area annually.
The bats are so important to Austin that years ago bridge engineers made modifications under the bridge to form extra roosting areas to accommodate more and more bats.
Perhaps the biggest cottage industry spawned by the bats is the tour boat business that nightly takes customers out on Lady Bird Lake to witness the bat flight.
“I started out 31 years ago with one boat, and then built three more,” says Mike Pearce, owner of Lone Star Riverboats. “The bats are a big part of our business.”
The night I rode on a Lone Star bat boat there were visitors from Pennsylvania, California, even China. Our trip was hampered by rainy weather and the bats didn’t cooperate, just fluttering around under the bridge, but not swarming out for their evening feast.
The bats are almost entirely females, who give birth to one pup a year. Typically about the size of a kitchen sponge, they have a wingspan of less than a foot.
The bats are such a big deal here that the Bats Conservation International organization has its headquarters in Austin. According to Katie Jepson, content producer for batcon.org, the Austin colony has so far escaped the dreaded White Nose Syndrome, which has devastated bat colonies elsewhere.
“We love our bats,” says Jepson. “They’re just another reason Austin is so unique.”
The migration pattern of the bats is interesting. They feast here during the warm months on an abundance of flying insects found around the lake. When the fall comes, the weather cools, and the food supplies begin to diminish. That’s the signal for “scout” bats to leave the bridge for Mexico, followed soon thereafter by the entire colony.
A viewing tip: as we get closer to end of the season the bats take off on their foraging flights later in the evening. The best chance to catch them is around dusk, just before dark.
One of the best spots to see the bats from is aboard one of the riverboats that cruise nightly from docks just west of the Hyatt Hotel on the south side of the lake. See their information below.
Lone Star Riverboats
lonestarriverboat.com | 512-327-1388
capitalcruises.com | 512-480-9264