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Austin, Texas, is proud of its weird activities, one such, bat watching, draws hundreds of spectators every evening, Elizabeth Trovall writes.
Text: Elizabeth Trovall
Country: United States

ith the motto “Keep Austin Weird,” Austin, Texas has declared itself the city that marches to the beat of its own drum.

It’s not only a politically liberal dot in a giant, conservative state, but it’s also filled with a plethora of odd activities. Bat watching – one of the most beloved and non-exclusive activities – has become central to the city’s identity, attracting tourists and locals for decades.

More than 1.5 million bats inhabit the crevices of downtown Austin’s South Congress Bridge, making it the largest urban colony of Mexican Free-tailed bats in North America. Though they are largely unseen in the daytime, when the sun sets, the bats leave the bridge to snack on insects lingering over Austin’s Lady Bird Lake on the Colorado River, drawing hundreds of spectators.

Austin has even dedicated a “Bat Fest” to the bats’ flight, as bat watching has become an important cultural event for Austin locals and tourists. The price is right – free – and seeing the bats is an experience that unites all types of Austinites.

I still remember my first visit to the South Congress Bridge in downtown Austin. Bats don’t have the best reputation in the animal kingdom. As a child, I was taught to avoid bats, as they were often associated with rabies. That’s why my parents suggesting a visit to a bat bridge seemed like an oddly risky activity for my moderately cautious mom and dad.

After my parents assured my eight-year-old self that the bats wouldn’t bite, I piled into the car with my mom, dad, and little brother, and we drove into the city in search of Austin’s famed bats.

When we arrived at the bridge, I immediately broke into a sweat after stepping out of the car. The bats are best seen in the spring and summer, when it is incredibly hot in central Texas.

We walked through a large, grassy hill beside the South Congress Bridge, where a group of about a couple hundred people gathered, fanning themselves.

Families were sitting on blankets; a vendor was selling glow-in-the-dark bracelets to children. Other people were standing on the bridge. Some people brought snacks, though most were just sitting and chatting, waiting for the sun to set and signal to the bats that feeding time was upon them. Suddenly, the sprinkle of chatter came to a hush as hundreds of black, fluttering bats started to emerge from under the bridge.

At first just a small stream of bats flew out of the dark, manmade cavern. What struck me was the way they moved; more like giant butterflies than birds, flapping their tiny wings at a strange tempo.

And as we watched in awe, more and more emerged from the bridge, creating a ribbon-like pattern as they floated into the sky and over the nearby lake, feasting on millions of insects.

It was my first time seeing bats in the “wild,” and the swarm gave off a surprisingly peaceful vibe, not at all like the bloodsucking mini-vampires I imagined. They drifted away from the crowd under the bridge, not at all interested in human blood but rather focused on the river insects.

My inaugural bat bridge experience was typical, an initiation ceremony of sorts for newcomers to the area and tourists.

Most Austinites can tell their first bat bridge story; for example, freshmen at the large University of Texas often are taken to the bridge as a part of their first-year activities. Brantley Robertson, 23, first went to see the bats while attending UT. Brantley is not from Austin, so he first heard of the bats from his friends in school.

“Well, I was actually (a resident assistant) at one of the big dorms on campus and so we were constantly coming up with ideas for programming stuff for residents, like things to do,” he said. “So, I actually heard from another RA that it’s a cool Austin free thing to do.”

Robertson went to see the bats in early summer with his friends, while the weather was still bearable and somewhat cool in the evening.

“There were a lot of people on the bridge and a lot of people actually came; you can rent kayaks on the river underneath the bridge, so people would actually get in kayaks and see the bats from underneath.”

Robertson found a place on top of the bridge to watch from above as the bats came out from under the bridge.

“When I got there I waited for 15 minutes until the sun started to go down a little more. And then around dusk, swarms of bats left from underneath the bridge. It kind of looked like clouds. There were so many bats it appeared to be like this gray cloud moving. They mostly fly together, which I found kind of interesting.”

Robertson knew the bats were safe, but he was worried about one thing.

“I was a little afraid of being pooped on because they fly over your head, but that didn’t happen.”

The most interesting part for Brantley was the sheer number of bats swarming.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect there to be as many bats as there were.” Another UT graduate, Lauren Immell, grew up in the Austin area and has gone to see the bats a few times. Over the years she has come to appreciate what the bats mean to the city on a deeper level.

“Since seeing them, I’ve grown up. So my perspective has changed in the sense that I am more educated on what they are and the great benefits afforded to our city by having them around,” she said. The bats, for her, are part of the cityscape, not just a cool spectacle. “They’re always quite magical to see when you least expect it while driving along the bridge,” said Immell.

If you happen to visit central Texas, you’ll find plenty of live music, BBQ and all of Austin’s token “weird” stores and venues. However, if the season is right, I recommend a visit to see the bat bridge, where man meets animal and Austin’s urban landscape hosts a beautiful, natural, (weird) phenomena.

Austin Bridge Bats

-1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live at the South Congress Bridge, which gets thousands of visitors every year.

-Austin bridge bats live in the 15 crevices under the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, 100 S. Congress Ave., built in 1980.

-When the bats leave the bridge, Austin’s Mexican free-tailed bats fly at more than 60 miles per hour.

-The bats eat 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects each evening.

-The Congress Avenue Bridge maintains a stable, warm temperature for the bats as the bridge absorbs heat during the day and releases the heat at night.

-If you visit the bat bridge, bring a hat to protect your head from bat droppings.

-Bats can be found all over Texas in various caves and caverns, particularly in the Texas Hill Country.



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Bat signals fascinate hundreds .

Austin, Texas is a city with many weird activities. One of these is bat watching, which is very popular, as it attracts hundreds of people every evening.

More than 1.5 million bats inhabit the crevices of downtown Austin’s South Congress Bridge, making it the largest urban colony of Mexican Free-tailed bats in North America. During the day you don’t see the bats and would never know they were there. But when the sun sets, millions of bats leave the bridge to eat the insects that linger over Austin’s Lady Bird Lake on the Colorado River.

Austin even has a “Bat Festival” dedicated to the bat’s flight, as it is now an important cultural event for Austin locals and tourists. The bats are best seen in the spring and summer, when it’s incredibly hot in central Texas. But seeing the bats is such an unforgettable experience that it’s worth it to endure the heat. Many people watch the bats from over the bridge, but some people rent kayaks to see them from underneath the bridge. It is quite a magical experience, but the bats are not only beautiful to look at, they are also beneficial to the environment.

 

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Bat Bridge

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Grammar in Use

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Elementary: Phrasal Verb: to burn up.

Advanced: Idiom: As blind as a bat.

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Bat signals fascinate hundreds

Bats

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