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Don't Look Up

by Zane Larkin about a year ago in Science
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Houston's Bat Colony

The Waugh Bridge Bat Colony is one of Houston's lesser-known but still very popular attractions.

When people think of bats and Texas they typically think of the bats under the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, but it is a little known fact that Houston has its own bats too. Located under the Waugh Bridge where it passes over Buffalo Bayou Park, the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony consists of an estimated 250,000 Mexican free-tailed bats, so named because of the lack of webbing or membrane between their tail and their hind legs.

If you’ve never seen any bats for yourself, let me tell you that it is quite the interesting and entertaining experience—even just watching them in free-flight around the city in the evening is a real treat! However, as any avid bat-watcher or naturalist knows, the best and most thrilling time to observe the bats is when they emerge from under their bridge in the early evening. To this end Houston’s Parks & Recreation department has erected an official viewing area near the bridge complete with fun bat facts that can be perused while waiting for the sun to set and the bats to emerge.

Most out-of-towners might be surprised to learn that Houston has bats, but quite a goodly number of native Houstonians (particularly those living near the downtown area where the colony is located) are well aware of the fact and, while the crowds that gather are nowhere near the size of those that congregate to see the emergence of Austin’s famed bat colony, a quite sizeable group of people show up nearly every evening (especially in the summer months) to watch the bats take flight. Viewers (along with pedestrians and cyclists who happen to be using the trails along the bayou at this time) are discouraged from going under the bridge prior to and during the bat flight, and there are even prominent signs posted upon the pilings warning those who do pass under the bridge to not look up, since the bats are most active at this time and most of them choose this time to void their bowels. And to anyone who has never had the experience of passing through a bat cave or under a bridge that houses a bat colony—word to the wise to take that warning seriously. Bat guano is very potent, and the smell alone is bad enough (and concentrated enough) during the height of the day—you do not want to emerge from the other side wearing it as your new perfume.

The bats typically come out around 7 or so in the evening, while it is still light enough to see them. They come out in a whirling vortex on the east side of the bridge facing downtown (hence the location of the viewing area). Aside from the bats (themselves a quite breath-taking sight) of particular interest is the bird-life that they attract on their nightly ritual. Hawks of the red-tailed, cooper, and shanks variety and even a couple of peregrine falcons have been observed flocking to the bridge in preparation for an evening meal, and keen viewers can find much delight in watching their aerial displays and daring acrobatics while plucking bats out of the sky. If you’ve ever wanted to see a wild raptor hunt, the bat flight provides the perfect opportunity to see them at their best.

Viewing the mass exodus, however, is not always a guaranteed thing, and is most honestly best done in the summer months, even though the bats are present for the entire year. I learned this truth the hard way, when I went to see them earlier this month and also sought to take photos of them for the purpose of accompanying this article, and was forced to walk away with nothing when, despite being able to hear them and see them flapping about under the bridge in the early hours of the evening, they failed to emerge in any great numbers and the few who did were too quick for the shutter of my camera lens. Hence the terrible lack of bat photos in this article about bats. But such is life, and some things are best experienced in person anyway.

Science

About the author

Zane Larkin

I'm not a journalist, but I do publish like one.

Promising dogs, cats, politics and good old-fashioned common sense. Let's keep things civil.

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