Austin’s nightly bat aerial show a sight to behold

Austin’s nightly aerial show is a sight to behold

07/21/2012 5:00 AM

07/22/2012 6:38 AM

I love spending time amid the masses … just as long as they’re not made up of people.

My idea of the perfect crowd is being alone and near the better part of a million cranes, geese and ducks flushing from Quivira’s Big Salt Marsh. It’s a melee so loud I can barely hear myself think … but the only think I’m thinking is “wow!”

But on an evening last week I was deep inside a sizable city and part of maybe 1,000 people, many of whom were standing shoulder to shoulder.

And it was great because wildlife outnumbered all of us 1,000 or more to 1.

It’s not uncommon for 750,000 to 1.5 million bats to take to the evening skies over Austin in the warm weather months. It’s amazing for many reasons.

I’d long heard there was something cool to do with bats roosting under a bridge in Texas’ capital city, but I was surprised it’s in the absolute heart of city.

The roost was less than a half-block from our major hotel. High-rise office buildings rose on the other side of the bridge on Congress Avenue, a major street that leads to the towering state capitol a few blocks away.

The bridge spans Lady Bird Lake, a portion of the Colorado River dammed deep enough for a steady fleet that ranges from cruising dinner boats to kayaks and paddleboards. Joggers, bike riders and dog walkers are common along a path that traces the lake.

But the hour before dark is rush hour around the bridge. By the time we arrived at about 8:15 p.m., one side of the 300-foot bridge was thick with people.

Even the lake was busy, with kayaks and canoes arriving early to secure a good spot. Several tour boats comfortably loaded with dozens of spectators pulled up after a short river cruise. (Early that morning we’d tried to reserve seats on such a boat, but they were booked several days in advance.)

As impressive as the bats that eventually came was the way a metropolitan area of more than 1.5 million people embraced nature’s urban show.

A sizable moving sculpture of a bat stands prominently at one end of the bridge. The town’s newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, has interpretive signs below the bridge and tolerates crowds in its nearby parking lot.

Souvenirs range from bat posters and shot glasses to t-shirts and cool photography.

Watching that evening were families with up to four generations in attendance, groups of students and couples dressed to the nines.

The bats, Mexican free-taileds, eventually flew from where they spend their days in myriad deep, dark, thin openings under the wide bridge.

For the first 10 minutes it was just a few flying around in their topsy-turvy typical bat way.

A collective gasp arose from the crowd when bats came from beneath the bridge as the spread across the countryside to spend the night feeding on insects.

On and on they came for the half hour we stayed, and judging by the excitement in the crowd they were still flying forth as we left.

Around town we saw photography that showed long clouds of bats against a vibrant sunset. Our show began too late for that luxury. It was dark enough all we could see were the silhouettes of bats passing directly overhead, and others passing through red beams of light tour boats splashed across the bridge.

I couldn’t tell you if 100,000 or 1 million bats flew that evening.

Maybe they’d have flown earlier during cooler weather. Several people mentioned the best viewing will be next month, when this year’s pups begin taking flight.

With a daughter now living just a few blocks from the famed bridge, I’d like to return before they migrate southward this fall and maybe see more bats under better light. Surely the show will again be good enough that I’ll never notice the crowds.

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