When I first came to Austin, Texas in 1985, I was driving on Interstate 35 and saw what I thought was a huge plume of black smoke spreading across the Downtown area toward the airport. I thought a plane crashed because one of the landing approaches for the old airport was right over I-35 just northeast of Downtown. The mysterious black cloud was dynamically swirling through the sky even though there was no wind. The stunning sight was not smoke at all, but the evening flight of the Austin urban bat colony from under the Congress Avenue Bridge in Downtown Austin. The Austin bat flight is so thick that it is sometimes detected on weather radar as cloud cover.
Best Places to Watch the Austin Bats Fly
Among the top five coolest things to do in Austin, Texas is watching the nightly Austin bat flight of an estimated 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that emerge from under the Ann Richards’ Congress Avenue Bridge from mid-March to November. Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America and watching them emerge from under the bridge between 7:00 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. each night is a spectacle of nature that is hard to match. The Austin bats come from Mexico in March to have their baby pups in June. Each night the Austin bats fly as far as fifty miles away to find food and eat 15 tons of flying insects!
My favorite place to sit with a blanket and ice chest for this jaw-dropping Austin event is the small hill located southeast of the Congress Avenue Bridge just off the Hike and Bike Trail along Lady Bird Lake. This Bat Observation Center is below the Austin American-Statesman building at 305 South Congress Avenue near Downtown Austin. Parking at the Austin American-Statesman is free after 6:00 p.m. for the best Austin bat flight viewing. The bats fly so fast and there are so many bats, that you can hear a roar in the air as they emerge. Mexican free-tailed bats can fly at 60 mph and soar up to 2 miles high. It can take up to 30 minutes for the bats to fully emerge from under the bridge.
Hundreds of people also line the Congress Avenue Bridge and the Hike and Bike Trail to view the bat flight each night. A more formal way to view the Austin bat flight is from the lake side patio at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant on Caesar Chavez or T.G.I. Friday’s at the Radisson Hotel, just north of the Congress Avenue Bridge. A couple of really adventurous ways to watch the Austin bats fly are taking the Bat Watch Boat Tour, the narrated Bat Cruise, or taking the Bat Watch Kayak Tour.
I usually plan my Downtown Austin tour for visiting family and friends by calling the local office for Bat Conservation International at 512-327-9721 to get estimated bat flight times. The bats will fly at different times depending on weather and when they have their baby pups. Usually the hotter and drier it is, the earlier the bats fly. Also, there are days in June when the bats have their baby pups that they do not fly.
Peak Austin Bat Watch at Austin Bat Fest in August
What’s cooler is, in the tradition to Keep Austin Weird, you can dress like a bat and win the Bat Costume Contest at the Annual Austin Bat Fest in August. July and August are peak Austin bat watching months because their baby pups start to fly with their mothers and they fly before sundown. When the baby bat pups are born, they weigh one-third the weight of the mother bat. Imagine human Moms giving birth to 50 pound babies!
The Annual Austin Bat Fest is a wildly fun festival on the Congress Avenue Bridge, but it is really hot in Austin in late August, so dress light and plan to buy lots of water during the Bat Fest. The festival costs $8 per person and kids under 10 are free. It goes from 4:00 p.m. to midnight and has live music on two stages, one at each end of the bridge. There are games for kids, food, drinks, arts and crafts, and lots of people dressed like bats for the Bat Costume Contest.
You can pay for parking at the Palmer Events Center on South 1st and Riverside, or at One Texas Center at 505 Barton Springs Road. Free parking after 6:00 p.m. is available at the Austin American-Statesman Building on Congress Avenue or the Texas Department of Transportation building at 200 E. Riverside.
Bat Education for the Best Austin Bat Watching Experience
Austin locals have come to appreciate the bat colony due to the bat education efforts of the Bat Conservation International organization. Each year, over 100,000 people come to view the Austin bats and contribute around $10 million to the local economy. To learn more about these Mexican free-tailed bats and their importance to the ecosystem and economy of Austin, read these Bat Conservation International and Austin American-Statesman publications: Austin’s Bridge Bats and Freetail Flyer.
Bat Safety for the Best Austin Bat Watching Experience
When I first learned about the Austin Congress Avenue Bridge bats, I was pretty scared to be up close and personal with millions of bats. In fact, in the early 1980’s, many Austin locals wanted the Austin urban bat colony eradicated because of their fear of bats. Bats are safe to watch if you DO NOT TOUCH the bats. Here are some things I learned about the Austin Bridge bats that may help you feel better during your Austin bat watching experience:
A majority of bats do not have rabies, but if you see a dead or injured bat, do not touch it. Rabies can be transmitted by a bat bite and injured bats will most likely bite. To date, there has not been a case of bat rabies transmitted to a human in Austin or surrounding areas. For more facts about bat safety, visit this Bat Conservation International site.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, a person cannot get rabies from watching bats, or by coming in contact with bat droppings, bat urine, or bat blood. In fact, there are only about one or two human rabies cases per year in the United States. Of course, always seek medical attention if you have come in contact with a bat and follow the guidelines for bat safety from the Centers for Disease Control and Bat Conservation International.
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