If you’ve ever been driving through downtown Austin around sunset in the summer, you have probably seen the throngs of people lined up, shoulder to shoulder, along the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue bridge. You’ve likely witnessed the lawn chairs and blankets dotting the grassy shores of Lady Bird Lake, and all the people looking up in anticipation. What’s the big event? They’re waiting on 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats to emerge.
This breathtaking, spiraling funnel of creatures pouring out from under the structure each night is considered one of the city’s most celebrated attractions. Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people congregate to watch their departure at sunset during the months of March through October. The colony numbers swell in summer months when the bats have pups. Watching the largest urban bat colony in North America depart from the underside of a bridge into the evening sky, like an ominous black cloud, is both a remarkable and weird thing, kind of like Austin itself.
The Bats’ Journey
The bats have lived under the bridge for decades. In 1980, renovations to the structure provided deep and narrow openings that made for an ideal bat home. On any given day, you can walk across the bridge and hear their squeaking, but the bats only emerge for nightly feedings around dusk. Speaking of feedings, it is estimated that the bats consume between 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects every night!
During the phenomenal bat departure, the bats exit in streams, always to the left of the colony, flying away from the setting sun. They travel at a rate of 25 to 35 miles per hour, using their sense of echolocation to navigate and hunt. Each bat weighs approximately 12 grams, with a wing span of about 5 inches. Because they come out in such large numbers, they can be tracked by Doppler radar at the airport.
Bat Watching at its Best
The best spots for bat watching are along Lady Bird Lake near Congress Avenue. The Austin American-Statesman provides a public viewing area on the southeast end of Congress Avenue and the Lone Star Riverboat, with Capital Cruises, both offer nightly bat excursions. If kayaking is your thing, join the many brave kayakers on Lady Bird Lake who paddle out for a different perspective, but consider bringing an umbrella for your bat watching experience. Live, Love, Paddle offers nightly tours, complete with a local history of the bats and the bridge.
Call the Bat Hotline at 512-416-5700, extension 3636, for times of departure each night.