Austin’s Mexican free-tailed bat colony is not only incredibly impressive, at nearly 1.5 million bats it’s the largest urban bat colony in the world. It’s also something that Austinites take a lot of pride in. Visiting the huge colony under the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge is a must-do activity for any resident or visitor who comes at the right time. Though seeing the spectacular sight of the Austin bats emerging to feed on mountains of insects is never guaranteed, making the attempt is totally worth it if you’re able to catch a glimpse of these awesome winged mammals taking flight.
When to watch
Mexican free-tail bats arrive in Central Texas in the early spring and hang around until the first cold front in late October to mid-November. In June, mama bats give birth to one pup, and these babies are ready to fly by mid-August (which is when emergences peak, since the colonies can double at this time of year).
Where to see them
-Sit on the lawn or stand on the bridge. The easiest thing to do is to pack a picnic and head down to the Statesman’s Bat Observation Center in the northwest corner of the parking lot at least an hour before dusk. Street parking is available nearby, and there are several parking lots, as well, which are a bit of a longer walk. There is signage which will tell you more about the bats and you’ll be surrounded by many other families doing the same thing. If you have older kids who don’t mind standing for longer periods of time, you can find a spot on the southeastern part of the bridge about an hour before dusk. The best part is that these options are both free!
-Take a boat tour. Capital Cruises and Lone Star Riverboat both offer public sightseeing cruises which are about an hour in length. Departure times vary slightly, depending on what time of year it is, and you do need to arrive a bit in advance. Compared to hanging out on the ground, this is a little more comfortable, and you can usually snack on the boats while you listen to the guide tell you more about different spots along Lady Bird Lake.
-Canoe or kayak to the bridge. If you have your own canoe or kayak, you can get up close and personal with the bats, along with anyone else who has the same idea. Several vendors rent canoes, kayaks and paddleboards near the bridge. You can also book a bat tour with The Texas River School, which hosts a monthly Moonlight Bat Float, complete with music from local musicians and which benefits the nonprofits work to take at-risk kids for adventures on the water. Live Love Paddle also hosts bat tours.
-Enjoy the view while you eat. The north side of Lady Bird Lake has several hotels with restaurants, which claim to have the best bat watching. One casual option is Alta’s Cafe, which is located atop the Waller Creek Boathouse. There are a few piers along the north side of the Lake that also offer great vantage points to see the bats.
What to know about them
-It’s good to remember that the emergence of the Austin bats relies on many factors, including the time of year and the weather. You can call the “bat hotline” at (512) 327-9721 to see when bats have been emerging downtown. That said, some evenings, swarms of bats emerge and others, it’s hard to see much of anything at all. Loud noises and bright lights can disturb the bats and negatively impact their emergence.
What to do if you find one
-If you find a bat on the ground, DO NOT TOUCH IT! Whether dead or alive, there is a risk of rabies when touching bats. Keep people and pets away from a sick, injured, or dead bat and call Animal Control at 3-1-1.
How you can help the Austin bats
-Bat Conservation International, a bat protection and education organization that operates out of Austin, can always use financial supports for their efforts. Not looking to donate funds? You can directly help the bats in your own backyard by building a bat house. BCI has three free sets of plans to build your own bat house, as well as installation tips and other info on how to make your area hospitable to these incredibly important members of our ecosystem.
The Austin bats aren’t the only small, winged mammal around. Be sure to check out some of the other Central Texas spots where bats call home.