Hit the Road
Bracken Bat Cave
For the first time in 20 years, the public can watch—and listen—to the emergence of nearly a quarter-million Mexican free-tailed bats from a Central Texas cave

Every night from March to October, at around sundown, the bats take flight. They spend the next 12 hours feeding on hundreds of tons of insects.
IMAGE: Michael Durham/Minden Pictures/Bat Conservation International

Like the first drop of rain that brings on a storm, a single Mexican free-tailed bat emerges around dusk in summer from the mouth of Bracken Bat Cave, a 100-foot-wide crescent-shaped opening into a cavern in the Hill Country north of San Antonio. The bats’ exodus is slow at first as they linger at the cave’s lip, circling round and round inside before emerging.

As more bats flow from deep inside the Earth, the fluttering of wings grows louder, like a rainstorm gathering. Over the next four hours, tens of millions more bats will follow the first in streams of graceful swirls that rise into the wide sky and dissipate in the distance.

Surrounded by 697 undeveloped acres owned and protected by Austin-based Bat Conservation International, Bracken Bat Cave is the summer home to the largest colony of bats in the world. Each year, the mostly female, dark brown to gray Mexican free-tailed bats migrate from Mexico to Texas for summer to birth and raise their pups. While no congregation is as large as the Bracken Bat Cave colony, these bats take refuge all across the state, including in downtown Austin under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, which shelters the world’s largest urban bat colony.

Every night from about March to October, these tiny creatures fly out from their underground roosts to feed. They spread out over a 60-mile radius from the cave at heights of up to 10,000 feet over the next eight to 12 hours to feed on hundreds of tons of insects, such as moths and agricultural pests. Their emergence is so dense that it shows up on Doppler radar.

The nightly bat emergence from Bracken Bat Cave lures a host of expectant watchers. A Great Horned Owl and two Harris’s Hawks scope out potential dinners from nearby trees. Their shapes cast ominous silhouettes against the pink and blue horizon at sunset. On the ground, skunks, raccoons and opossums prowl, and rattlesnakes lurk in wait to strike low-flying bats from the air.

People, too, can witness the bat flights from Bracken Bat Cave (for more information, go to batcon.org). This summer, for the first time in BCI’s 20-year ownership of the cave, bat flights are open to the public for a fee on Wednesday through Sunday evenings through late October. Additionally, purchasing memberships to BCI provides visitation options, including free tickets or discounts on tickets, depending on the membership level. Memberships start at $30.

In August, the meet-up time is 5 p.m., and bats emerge around sunset. After gathering at Natural Bridge Caverns about two miles away, groups of visitors caravan over rugged dirt roads and then hike about half a mile on easy-to-walk trails to a natural amphitheater-style seating area overlooking the cave. Near the site, signs encourage visitors to be quiet so as not to disturb the bats and enjoy the primitive, natural experience. The excited chatter dies down as spectators settle on cedar benches and boulders on the rim of the sinkhole above the cave.

But once the bats take wing and begin swirling directly overhead, guests don’t need to be shushed. Together, they fall silent in reverence, like desert dwellers watching and listening to the pitter-patter of welcome rain.

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Suzanne Haberman, staff writer

Bat Watching in Texas

Millions of Mexican free-tailed bats migrate to Texas after winter every year. Bracken Bat Cave, the largest summer bat colony in the world, is only one of Texas’ bat-watching sites, as the bats find roosts in caves and tunnels and under bridges all across the state.

 

Here are nine more locations in Texas where you can see bats take flight (visitation seasons, reservation requirements, fees and hours vary, so check with your destination before heading out).

 

Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, home to the largest urban bat colony in the world, totaling about 2 million bats in downtown Austin 

 

Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve Chiroptorium, an artificial bat cave on a preserve near Johnson City, (830) 868-2630

 

Clarity Tunnel, a railroad tunnel at Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway, (806) 455-1492

 

Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area, about 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats in a large sinkhole near Rocksprings, (830) 683-2287

 

Frio Cave, a privately owned cave near Concan with the second largest bat colony in the world, 1-888-502-9387, 

 

Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, a colony of around 5 million bats in Mason County, (325) 347-5970

 

Old Tunnel State Park, an abandoned railroad tunnel near Fredericksburg with more than 3 million bats, 1-866-978-2287

 

Stuart Bat Cave, the site of up to 1 million bats in Kickapoo Cavern State Park, (830) 563-2342

 

Waugh Drive Bat Colony, the summer home of about 250,000 bats in Houston

 

Source: Bat Conservation International

Watch the Bat Emergence

See how the bats whirl by in the summer sky.

TAGS: Central Texas, Hit the Road, Travel


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