2017: Austin

Going Batty

March 24


Our evenings were all very busy in Austin! The next night I wanted to see a renowned local phenomenon, the bats under the bridge. The Congress Avenue bridge joins downtown Austin to the south part of the city, crossing over a dammed portion of the Colorado River known as Town Lake (renamed to Lady Bird Lake in 2007). In 1980, long after I had left for California, the roadway of this bridge was rebuilt, and the engineers included small gaps running along the length of the bottom. Coincidentally, these cracks made an ideal home for the Mexican free-tailed bats that were already nesting in drains under the bridge, and allowed their population to increase dramatically. They are now the largest urban bat colony in North America, ranging from 750,000 pregnant females to 1.5 million after the babies are born. From March to November, every evening at sunset the bats fly out from under the bridge to hunt insects all night. Each evening people line the bridge and the riverbanks to see the "bat cloud" emerge.

It's also spawned a cottage industry, with two competing companies offering "bat cruises", as well as kayak and pedal boat rentals. We signed up with one of the bat-boat companies for a sunset cruise underneath the bridge.

  Full. Empty.

Before the cruise, we walked across the bridge and admired the river and skyline. Then we joined the other tourists to board our bat-boat, which had a giant bat-replica at the back.


The boat launched about a half-hour before sunset; it was electrically-powered and quiet. We cruised underneath the bridge and then back, admiring the skyline and listening to our very entertaining guide talk about the bats and other sights on the river. We also met and chatted with Jay, the young man sitting next to me; coincidentally, he lives in San Francisco and was in Austin working for a week. This evening was his last opportunity to take in the bats.

The competition. Ready!

As we cruised back toward the bridge to get in position, our driver/guide made sure to taunt - in a friendly way - the other competing cruise. Then, we were hovering in place watching the sunset, waiting and watching.


Then, interrupting our driver in mid-sentence, there they were!

It was different from what I expected. I had envisioned this giant cloud of bats rising all at once, en masse, as I thought I remembered from a long-ago childhood trip to Carlsbad Caverns. But instead, these bats came out in a thin tight column from the south end of the bridge, like a living stream flowing to the east. It went on, and on -- and on; but somehow it was not as impressive as I had thought it would be. Our position was unfortunate, because the bats' low path made them appear to be coming from riverside trees rather than the bridge.

Regardless, it was a pleasant evening on the calm waters and I wished we had a chance to use our kayaks here. Lady Bird Lake is a motor-free zone and a lovely recreational area, due in large part to Lady Bird Johnson's efforts. While she was still alive, she refused the city's efforts to rename Town Lake in her honor; but only a month after her death, they did it anyway.

The boat stayed in place for at least ten or fifteen minutes while the bats continued to emerge in a steady stream. Finally, when the flow started to dwindle, we turned and cruised slowly back to the launch point, admiring the skyline buildings once again as their lights grew bright in the dwindling twilight.

Our new friend Jay took a final selfie of the three of us and kindly texted it to my phone as we bid each other farewell and safe travels. The best part of this trip is turning out to be the old friends I visit and the new people we meet! !