Overlooking Lady Bird Lake within Austin, Texas, Congress Bridge is a home for 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats. For decades bats have established themselves as one of the local and beloved mascots in ATX. And it was discovered in the 1980’s that these Mexican free-tailed bats eat millions of pounds of insects a night, including agricultural pests, ultimately providing many benefits to the city, its residents and the ecosystem. Plus our bats are terribly endearing to the eyes and it’s kind of nice to know these nocturnal creatures are embarking on hunting flights in masses to run their little errands of the night as a great deal of the city is sound asleep.
These bats have now become a major tourist attraction from the months of March to November. From afar they are safe and harmless with no interest in humans. But do not touch or handle one, and certainly do not trap or hunt them. The bats are only to be admired and adored from a safe distance by land or water. Visitors may even want to bring a red light past dusk. Mexican free-tailed bats are small enough to fit in your hand, but large enough to easily be seen flying aloft in the sky in mass quantities. These bats fly differently than any bird, and sometimes it looks like they are flying in circles, so pay attention to their wings and shape to know when you’re in the presence of a bat.
Despite their nocturnal nature and dark coloring, bats aren’t always quiet or stealthy. Especially when they are leaving Congress bridge in millions. Sometimes they make a lot of cute and squeaky noises as they wake up and soar away from the bridge. The bats fly similarly to big butterflies and yet their wingspan looks nothing alike and they are less graceful. Fuzzy and soft with fur that is dark brown, large ears for its size and wings similar to Marvel Comics Batman logos—these migratory bats are born with “built-in GPS and night vision”.
Reflections of water cascading from Lady Bird Lake and the bright lights of downtown—many vivid photographs can be found online to see these bats hover, play and glide through the night sky in Austin. Every night during bat season, as time passes from sunset, to dusk, to twilight: people gather around Lady Bird Lake to see the atmosphere become consumed with gusts of bats pouring out of Congress Bridge. Departing in millions after sunset beneath Congress Bridge before the bats return back around dawn. Some people like to hang out on the bridge, but a boat is another fun option.
Fortunately there are many local boat tours and city-wide destinations to discover and experience the best viewings of these beauties. Capital Cruises Internationally Famous Bat Watching Tour is a good choice and I have attended once, even thought I am a local Austinite of 20+ years. The tour only cost $10 and they take out a infrared light that glows colors of reds into the sky. Making it quite easy for the human eye to capture the live visuals of millions of bats pouring out together in droves. For locals and visitors alike, it’s a remarkable sight to see! Sitting on an electronic boat, watching the bats can be rather hypnotizing and exhilarating to watch. As if the bats are putting on a show for us all, without any of the cruelty of a standard zoo or a traveling animal circus. However I do recommend choosing the covered boat as these bats are just waking from a deep sleep.
According to Bat Conservation International, “When engineers reconstructed the Congress Avenue Bridge in 1980 they had no idea that new crevices beneath the bridge would make an ideal bat roost. Although bats had lived there for years, it was headline news when they suddenly began moving in by the thousands. Reacting in fear and ignorance, many people petitioned to have the bat colony eradicated. About that time, Merlin Tuttle brought BCI 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. As the city came to appreciate its bats, the population under the Congress Avenue Bridge grew to be the largest urban bat colony in North America. With up to 1.5 million bats spiraling into the summer skies, Austin now has one of the most unusual and fascinating tourist attractions anywhere.”
In 2007, the city of Austin changed the name of the reservoir running beneath Ann W. Richards Congress Bridge from Town Lake to Lady Bird Lake. The name change was a controversy in-and-of itself as the Former First Lady of the United States, nicknamed Lady Bird Johnson, was against the idea of naming this lake after her and wished for it to remain as is. However, when she passed away the city opted to change the reservoirs name in honor of all the hard work, dedication and endless support that Claudia Alta Taylor “Lady Bird” Johnson bestowed upon the state of Texas. Particularly her involvement with the Town Lake Beautification Project in Austin: the state capital of The Lone Star State.
Thankfully these special and unique Mexican bats living on Lady Bird Lake beneath Congress Bridge are forever protected by the city, solely because of individuals like Lady Bird Johnson and Merlin Tuttle. However, Austin’s love for bats exceeds far beyond Congress Bridge. Bat-related art and merchandise can be found all over the city at many local gift shops. Franzetti Jewelers is a perfect example of a local company that has taken a mascot of the city and turned it into beautiful jewelry. Designing necklaces, rings and pendants; Franzetti Jewelers offers silver and gold, bat-inspired jewelry with stones of garnet, blue topaz, citrine, peridot, onyx, amethyst, smoky quartz and white quartz.
For more information regarding the Mexican free-tail bats of Austin and the best times to find them this summer and fall under Congress Bridge, please consult www.batcon.org.
Note: This article was originally published on in July 2015.