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BY SHANNON BARRIENTES / PHOTOS COURTESY OF HERRONSTOCK

If you’ve never seen 1.5 million bats emerge for their nightly feeding in a black tornado-like swirl of flapping wings, then you haven’t been to the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk. Known by locals simply as Congress Bridge, it’s located downtown Austin, Texas, between West Cesar Chavez Street and East Riverside Drive, within walking distance of restaurants, trendy bars, hotels, the awesome all-inclusive 2ND Street District, and locally beloved Auditorium Shores, home of the Stevie Ray Vaughan Statue and the Long Center. As the sun sets over Austin, the bats emerge from their roost beneath the bridge en route for their dinner. It’s a stunning display that will leave you breathless and wanting more. In our local colony, there are sometimes more bats living beneath the Congress Bridge than humans live in Austin! The Congress Bridge soars majestically over lovely, serene Lady Bird Lake, called Town Lake by many locals.

Our bat friends are the Mexican free-tailed bats, a medium-sized mammal native to the Americas. They are sleek, fast little creatures, with some claiming that they have the quickest horizontal speed of any animal. Their favorite food is the moth, but they also prey on wasps, flying ants and beetles. Many of the insects they prey upon are serious agricultural pests, and the bats are part of the natural check and balance system that encourages healthy agriculture. These bats are part of a clade believed to be over six-million-years old and have cousins all over the world. They get their name because of their unique tails, which are almost half their total length. These bats locate their pray with echolocation (reflected sound); they are also clever creatures—it has been discovered that their ultrasonic vocalizations have the effect of jamming the calls of rival bat species hunting insects, according to a Wake Forest University study published in 2014.

A flock of birds flying over boats on the water.
A flock of birds flying over the city at night.
A flock of birds flying over buildings in the city.

LEFT: Congress Avenue Bridge Bats fly along Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas. MIDDLE: Bats are also found At The McNeil I-35 Bridge in Round Rock, Texas. Right: lumes of Mexican free-tail bats overtake the Austin skyline as they exit the Congress Avenue Bridge for their nightly feeding.

As the sun sets,

the bats emerge from their roost beneath the bridge

en route to their dinner.

It’s a stunning display that will leave you breathless.

You can watch the bats from above, directly on the Congress Bridge, which has a popular and pedestrian-friendly walk that allows tourists and locals to get a stunning view (but be mindful of busy traffic, especially at rush hour!). Beware that there is standing room only and the view at the rail is first come, first serve. And, proudly sponsored by our local newspaper, the Statesman Bat Observation Center is another great viewing area. It can be found right on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail, just on the southeast side of the Congress Bridge, at 305 South Congress Avenue. You’ll find the observation area in the northeast parking lot of the Austin American Statesman Building, and it’s easily accessible by foot, or has nearby parking. The bridge and the observation center are both free for visitors. The observation center and the hike and bike trail and nestled where the bat stream is the densest, as they fly toward the south end of the bridge, away from downtown.

For the more adventurous at heart, there are two riverboats that offer bat watching excursions from gorgeous Lady Bird Lake for couples, groups or parties, as well as several kayaking, canoes, or paddleboard rental options for the solo or independent adventurers. Be sure to take a parka, as falling bat guano is a real thing. But the view from below is spectacular and worth every penny. The hike and bike trail is free for bikers, but there are bike tours available as well. Austin Bat Tours is a great all-in-one source for tour information; but all of your excursion options are just a quick web
search away.

The best time to see the bats is between March through May and then July through September, with a peak during March, when the colony is full, and again in August, post breeding season. Young bats, called pups, are ready for their first flight in the hottest days of summer, which can double the population as it emerges. It’s a spectacular time to view the bats and it’s no coincidence that it times with Austin’s annual Bat Fest, which happens every August, rain or shine.

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Bat Fest is lots of fun for the family, with live music, arts and crafts vendors, delectable food and drink, entertainment for the kiddos, and lots of wild bat fun including the very weird, very famous, annual bat contests—one for adults and one for the kids. Originality is encouraged and, for sure, Austin’s reputation for weirdness will be on display in all its bat glory.

The time the bats emerge varies throughout the year, but is roughly between 7 and 9 p.m. Never fear though—Austin has its own bat hotline [(512) 327-9721; option 2] where, you guessed it, you can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for an update on when bats are about to take to the skies. You can easily plan in advance, or the day of, to ensure you don’t miss a single winged mammal. For those who want to learn more, the Austin Bat Refuge website has some fun and educational tips. For example, if you get a spot early, you can observe the scout bats, called “light samplers,†fly out before the big emergence.

There are also other great roosts in Texas to check out, and austinbatrefuge.org has beautiful radar that brilliantly displays just how many bats make their home in Texas (not that we blame them one bit, we love it here!). The largest Mexican free-tailed bat colony in the world is just down the road in San Antonio, with a stunning colony of 20 million, all living in a 100-foot-wide sinkhole owned by Austin, Texas-based Bat Conservation International. That’s just one example of bat-watching opportunity, as these little guys live all over Texas. But just after Halloween, the bats head south to Mexico for the warmer winter. We’re sad to see them go, but we’re excited for their annual return.

Visit these great websites to learn about viewing the bats or about the bats themselves.