Although I’ve always been crazy about nature and its inhabitants (even the not-so-cuddly ones), I never had a special place in my heart for bats…until I saw millions of them emerge from an abandoned railroad tunnel deep in the heart of Texas.
My new admiration for winged mammals had an unlikely beginning: a 2007 business trip to Fredericksburg, about 70 miles west of Austin. I knew I’d have free time in the evenings during my trip, so I researched things to do in the area. I stumbled across Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, home to as many as 3 million Brazilian free-tailed bats. After learning that visitors can watch the bats emerge from the tunnel at night, I knew I’d found my extracurricular activity!
At the end of my work day, I headed to Old Tunnel, wanting to arrive before sunset. This area of Texas is really picturesque, and I enjoyed the drive on a narrow country road, arriving with plenty of time to spare.
I climbed down to the tunnel for a sneak preview.Wow! If someone had asked me to imagine what an old tunnel housing millions of bats might look like, this is it. I have to say that this picture can’t convey the overwhelming odor of bat guano emanating from the entrance. That and the sounds of chirping and millions of little wings rustling inside that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up!
I continued on to the viewing area at the top of the gully. The park ranger gave a short bat presentation, accompanied by photos, to our group of about a dozen people. We were told to be quiet and to not make sudden movements. And flash photography is not permitted.
Right on cue at dusk, the bats emerged. Just a few at first, then a few dozen. Then hundreds, then thousands. Several thousands. So many that even though we were sitting quite a few feet away from the rim, we could feel the breeze from their wings. As the bats emerge from the tunnel in the gully, they move together in a kind of upwards-spiraling vortex, gaining momentum as they circle higher and higher, passing the viewing area before flying off to rid Texas of flying insects.
I was mesmerized. It doesn’t matter whether you think bats are creepy or cool. A bat emergence is like wildebeest on the Serengeti or Monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico or a murmuration. Seeing thousands or millions of a non-human species in one place is awe-inspiring, and I felt privileged to have witnessed it.
In fact, I was so moved by my experience that I returned the next night. The ranger was amused to see me again but warned that with rain in the forecast, the bats might not emerge. The rain progressed from a sprinkle to a downpour. Only about six of us hardy bat aficionados waited that night, totally soaked, by the gully. My teeth were chattering. But the bats emerged! And it was once again amazing.
Fast forward several years, and I finally saw another bat emergence at the Orient Land Trust in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Getting to this viewing area involves a moderate hike to an abandoned mine in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. This colony is smaller than the Old Tunnel colony, but seeing the bats flying to the valley below against the evening sky is fabulous nonetheless. I created this video clip…apologies for the amateur quality, but I hope that it helps convey the sheer numbers of bats!
Someday I also hope to see the bats at:
Check out the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 13 Facts about Bats.