Winged Evaders

Catching a bat emergence when Mother Nature isn't cooperating can be a sticky situation. Just ask me.

As a magazine writer, I'm as perpetually confused about what time of year it is as a department store window dresser who dreams up beach scenes in the dead of February. I'm always ahead or behind the season by months, researching Christmas-shopping articles in August and checking out swimming holes in the freezing winds of March. So when I decided to write about bats for my July column, which would be due around the first of May, I should have known I was setting myself up for an untimely failure. Let's face it, Mother Nature doesn't respect Texas Monthly deadlines.

The Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve, which is outside Mason and home to an estimated six million bats, wouldn't be open to the public until mid-May. Prior to my deadline, few, if any, of the two million bats who roost in the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area near Fredericksburg had arrived from their winter homes in Mexico. My attempts to catch emergences at Austin's Congress Avenue Bridge or the Frio River Bat Cave near Concan, both inhabited by late April, were thwarted by stormy weather; those smart bats don't fly in the rain. (Several years ago I went on a two-week tornado chase with a professional—and perhaps certifiable—storm-chaser. During our insane wanderings through the Midwest, we never saw a storm like the one I watched blow across the Hill Country toward me as I sat on a nice, high promontory outside the Frio Bat Cave, waiting for a) the bats to never emerge or b) to be struck by lightning or c) to drown in the four-inch-an-hour deluge).

And although I was fortunate enough to visit Bracken Cave outside New Braunfels last year to watch about 30 million Mexican free-tailed bats spiral out of the cave at twilight—the most stunning natural sight I've ever witnessed—Bracken's increasing exclusivity bars me from touting it as a tourist attraction. It's easier to get backstage at a Dylan concert than through the gates at Bracken, open only to members of Bat Conservation International (BCI), which owns the cave, and only by sporadic, specially arranged tours. (This may change, for better or worse, if BCI builds the controversial multimillion-dollar visitors center now on the drawing board.)

Fortunately, the gist of my article wasn't about bat caves but about show caves, which dependably persist as year-round attractions, unaffected by rain, snow, sleet, or hail. Sort of the mail carriers of the tourism world. Still, I had really hoped to flavor my column with a sprinkling of bats, which had not only inspired my underworld subject matter but also had inspired me in general ever since I saw my first emergence at the Congress Avenue Bridge years ago and began to collect trivia about the winged wonders.

As recently as 1986, Austinites were circulating petitions to eradicate the Congress Avenue Bridge colony. Thank goodness—for the bats and the economy—cooler heads prevailed. According to a 1997 BCI study, the now-beloved colony generates an estimated $8 million in tourism revenue annually and eats up to fifteen tons of insects each night.

At the turn of the century, almost 30,000 pounds of guano—used to manufacture gunpowder—were annually transported by rail from Texas to other states, making bat poop the state's largest mineral export at the time. Bracken Cave is still producing around one hundred tons per year that now go into fertilizers.

As many as five hundred Mexican free-tailed pups roost in one wiggly, squeaking square foot. Yet each mother bat finds her own pup in this tightly packed mass and nurses it multiple times every day.

When the weekend before my deadline finally rolled around, I had already resigned myself to an article devoid of tiny winged mammals. I would just have to flaunt my mastery of bat trivia some other time. Then Mother Nature finally threw this calendar-challenged writer a bone. At the eleventh hour, she at last let my hopes take flight at Stuart Bat Cave at Kickapoo Cavern State Park. Ah, bats. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands. (How do you figure the number of bats in an emergence? Count the wings and divide by two.) Perhaps as consolation for the belatedness of her benevolence, Mother Nature orchestrated the event to perfection, tossing a near-full moon into the clear sky and letting the bats fly so close I could feel the wind from their wings.

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