The tornado struck with scant warning at sunset, leaving a bevy of onlookers breathless—and the local bug population decimated. Pouring from a limestone cave still warm from the day’s bright sunshine, hundreds... thousands... millions of little critters flew in circles faster and faster, higher and higher—a living whirlwind of furry bodies and rustling wings—before streaming off to the north in search of dinner.
“This is spectacular!” exclaimed Betty Till of Nada on a recent trip to see bats emerge from the Eckert James River Bat Cave.
Peggy Sweeney of Houston makes the trip to Eckert in Mason County at least once every year. “To me this is just overwhelming,” she said. “They hardly notice us. They’re just going about their business, and here we are so close to them. It’s wonderful.”
Peggy has long been a fan of what many other Texans have only recently discovered: Texas is a mighty batty place. The little night creatures live throughout the state, and, in its western parts, they congregate in huge numbers in spots from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande. There is even a bat museum and rehabilitation center in Mineral Wells.
The fact is, Texas has bat bragging rights. More species of the furry flying mammals—31 of the 45 known U.S. bat species—make their home (for at least part of each year) in Texas than in any other state. Texas can also claim the biggest urban bat site in North America—the Congress Avenue Bridge colony in Austin—and the largest known bat colony in the world, at Bracken Cave outside San Antonio.
Spotting bats is easy enough – just watch the night sky. There's a good chance some of the "birds" you’ll see fluttering around are actually bats homing in on an insect meal. But if you’d like a more controlled bat experience, check out these spots around Texas:
Big Bend Country
The Barton Warnock Visitor Center in Terlingua, which serves as the eastern gateway to Big Bend Ranch State Park, offers occasional public programs and viewings. Check with the center for dates and times. Adult admission is $3, or $5 during peak season. The center is a mile east of Lajitas on FM 170. Call 432/424-3327; http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/barton-warnock.
Fort Leaton State Historic Site offers occasional bat-viewing programs. The park is 4 miles southeast of Presidio on FM 170. For more information about program times and fees, call 432/229-361; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/fortleat/fortleat.htm.
Bracken Cave, near San Antonio, has the world's largest known bat colony (20 million). It is on private land and is only open for public viewing with a reservation and $25 fee a few times yearly. Bat Conservation International members are allowed to attend free viewing sessions and other special events during the year. Public tours fill up fast. Call 512/327-9721; www.batcon.org.
About a mile south of the State Capitol in Austin lies the Congress Avenue Bridge. The bats can be observed from the bridge, from Town Lake (Capital Cruises, 512/480-9264, and Lone Star Riverboats, 512/327-1388, offer bat-viewing cruises), or from the Austin American-Statesman Bat Observation Area, on the south bank of Town Lake, east of the bridge. Some nearby restaurants have outside decks for bat viewing. Bat flights can be witnessed from around Mar. to Nov. The best times are usually in Aug. For emergence times, call Bat Conservation International at 512/327-9721.
A colony of more than 3 million Mexican free-tailed bats inhabits the more than 300-foot-deep Devil's Sinkhole during peak season at the Devil's Sinkhole State Natural Area, 6 miles northeast of Rocksprings in Edwards County. This site opens to the public only by guided tour Wed-Sun. Admission. Call the Devil's Sinkhole Society, Inc., at 830/683-BATS. The society has a visitors' center at 101 N. Sweeten St. in Rocksprings.
Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, 18 miles southwest of Mason off FM 2389, is one of the top sites in Texas for viewing Mexican free-tailed bats–about 4 million of the critters inhabit the cave by June each year, along with a smaller population of Cave Myotis bats. The preserve, managed by The Nature Conservancy of Texas and BCI, opens 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Thu-Sun from mid-May to early Oct. A steward is on hand to provide interpretation and answer questions. Group tours can be arranged Mon-Wed, and special dawn events can be scheduled to watch the bats returning to the cave. There is a $5 admission fee. The site can be difficult to find; call ahead, or check the Web site for directions. Note: There are rattlesnakes in the area, so dress appropriately. Call The Nature Conservancy of Texas, Austin office, at 512/263-8878, or during the season, call the cave steward at 325/347-5970; http://nature.org/texas/.
During peak times, up to 2 million Mexican free-tailed bats can be seen departing from the historic, abandoned 920-foot Fredericksburg & Northern Railroad Tunnel at the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area, between Fredericksburg and Comfort near the Old San Antonio Road. The site, managed by Texas Parks & Wildlife, offers interpretive bat-watching tours Thu. and Sat. evenings from early June-Oct. Unless visitors have a TPWD Texas Conservation Passport, there is a charge to attend the programs. A free public-viewing deck is available 7 days a week. 866/978-2287; http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/old-tunnel.
A private, one-man tour company offers sunset bat-flight tours at Frio Bat Cave, on private property south of Concan in Uvalde Co. from about mid-Mar. to mid-Oct. The cave houses Texas' second-largest known Mexican free-tailed bat population–about 10 million bats at peak times. Admission. Times vary. Reservations required. Call Hill Country Adventures at 830/966-2320; www.hillcountryadventures.com.
Colorado Bend State Park, about 30 miles west of Lampasas in San Saba County, is the site of Gorman Cave, home to a colony of Cave Myotis bats. TPWD offers a guided tour of the cave on Sat-Sun year round. To avoid disturbing the bats, visitors do not go into the roosting area. Tour times vary, and are listed on the events calendar of the Colorado Bend State Park website. Admission is $5 daily. Reservations required. Call 325/628-3240; http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/colorado-bend.
Selah, Bamberger Ranch in Blanco County features the world's largest artificial bat cave. The bats have found the site, and though the colony is still relatively small, currently housing about 10,000 Mexican free-tailed bats, it should grow exponentially over the years. Call 830/868-2630; www.bambergerranch.org.
Located 22.5 miles north of Brackettville on RR 674, Kickapoo Cavern State Park gives bat-watching tours of Stuart Bat Cave, where up to 1 million Mexican free-tailed bats roost in late summer. Tours are available from late Apr-Sep. This is a restricted-access park; reservations required. Admission. Call 830/563-2342; http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/kickapoo-cavern.
Clarity Tunnel in Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park is a 742-foot-long railroad tunnel called home by a colony of several hundred thousand Mexican free-tailed bats. The park usually offers bat-flight viewing programs in Aug-Sep. The park is about 75 miles southeast of Amarillo. The tunnel is about 4.5 miles from the park's Monk's Crossing parking area. Call the park for specific times, bat-viewing rules and tips, fees, and program details; 806/455-1492; http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/caprock-canyons.
This list originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of Texas Highways. It has been updated to include more recent information and other changes.