Travels and Thoughts

Our Bat Boondoggle

A million-and-a-half bats in a feeding frenzy? I couldn’t pass on the promise of such a sight.

Before we arrived in Austin, Texas, I’d read that Mexican Free-tailed bats made nests under the bridge on South Congress Avenue. They’d arrive annually in March and leave in late October. Late every afternoon, thousands of folks lined the bridge, sidewalks, and riverfront restaurants to watch these tiny mammals swoosh off in search of food. One internet write-up described a sixty-plus mph upsweep of hundreds of thousands of bats ascending over two miles into the sky. Their nightly mission: find and consume 20,000 pounds of insects. Their prey included moths, crickets, grasshoppers, and the legendary Texas-size mosquitos.

“Let’s go see the bats,” I’d said to Michael.

“You believe that hype?” my skeptical husband asked. “Besides, I’ve heard bats are aggressive.”

“Well, I don’t think thousands of tourists would line up if bat-watching was dangerous. I want to go.” I didn’t understand my husband’s lukewarm reaction, but he did agree to the outing.

While we could have seen the bats for free, we opted for a pontoon trip with a guide. There were a couple of different tour lines offering nightly bat-sighting boat trips, some with dinners and sunsets included. We opted for the no-frills, one-hour outing. With senior discounts, we paid $9 each, so perhaps I have no business complaining about the outcome.

Anticipating the bats would take flight at nightfall, we boarded our pontoon at about 8:00 p.m. We expected to see the bats at about 8:45 p.m. and be back at the dock by nine. For the first forty-five minutes of the ride, we went in the opposite direction of the bridge. Our guide provided a running commentary about the city, its history, and the huge parks along the riverbanks.

After pointing out several significant buildings, including the State Capitol and some of the University of Texas buildings, our guide laughingly pointed to a half-dozen other high-rise buildings to the right of the downtown cluster. “These are all new buildings, and I’ll tell you what they are.” With a pointing finger, she said, “Condo, condo, condo, condo, condo, and condo.” I felt a pang of longing. I’d love to live in one of those high-rises with a balcony over- looking the river and the park. Maybe my balcony would face the bridge and I could witness the ascension of the bats every evening while sipping a nice glass of wine.

Excitement escalated as night fell. Our boat joined dozens of other watercrafts (kayaks, canoes, pontoons, and one large dinner-boat) parked on the east side of the bridge. The bats would ascend on the west. Our guide warned us that sometimes bat poop, called guano, plunked tourists on their heads. The chances, she said, were less on the east side of the bridge. Our guide kept her red laser light pointed toward the undersides of the bridge, searching for activity while talking nonstop about bats.

Per our bubbly guide, every one of the one-and-a-half million bats living under this bridge was female—the male bats lived somewhere else. She further explained that over half of these female bats would give birth to a baby, probably in July. A bat’s lifespan was about seven years, and most mothers would produce three or four babies during that time.

“Babies are born at about one-third their adult size and weight” our guide said. “In human terms, this would be comparable to a woman giving birth to a forty-five-pound infant.” I’m sure I heard a collective gasp from the women on the boat. It was certainly a statistic I’ll never forget. “These babies breast-feed (bats are mammals) for about seven weeks, and then they’re on their own.”

The astounding bat facts continued. All seven-hundred-thousand-or-more of those mother bats birthed their babies around the same time. How could any single mother bat find her own offspring when she returned to the nest after a night of foraging? “No problem,” our guide said. “Within thirty-minutes of giving birth, every mother has learned her baby’s scent and feel. When they return to the nest after feeding, every mother goes directly back to her own baby.”

Excitement was palpable on the pontoon boat as darkness fell. The guide started alerting us to bat activity, pointing with her red laser. “They look like little dust-bunnies,” she said. “See, there, and there.”

I wish I could say I saw something comparable to the photo above during our bat-watching excursion, but I saw nothing. A couple of folks on the boat got excited, but most were like me—straining to see what the guide was talking about. “Look towards the cream-color at the corner of that hotel,” our guide said. “You can see the black shapes in front of the light color.”

Michael reported seeing maybe a half-dozen bats that night. I might have seen one or two. I want to believe I did, but I remain unconvinced.

While in Austin, we connected with a friend who lived there. When we told him about our disappointing bat outing, he laughed. “You mean they’re taking folks out to see those bats in May? Those bats don’t start flying until October! You’ve all been scammed.”

I thought back to how crowded that bridge area was during our adventure, and I could only shrug. I didn’t know what to think then, and I certainly don’t know now.

I suppose I should just be happy that no guano landed on our heads. If we’d seen a million of those bats but ended up covered in poop, Michael would never have forgiven me.

Meanwhile, I’d really love to see those bats. Maybe next time we’re in Austin, I’ll make it my mission.