Monday, June 26, 2006

Austin (II)

At nightfall, the bats appear from the Congress Avenue Bridge. In the air, flying in schools, they seem frantic and twitchy, darting every which way. But individually they are all graceful arcs and quick turns, dives and swoops and long spirals. And fragile: they are Mexican free-tail bats, with bodies no longer than my index finger.

The bats, I learn, aren't blind, which helps them navigate their close-quarters emergence. On Fridays and Saturdays nights in summer the area around the bridge is packed, hundreds of people in the parking lot of the Austin American-Statesman, above the lake, and in kayaks and paddleboats along the water. The best place to watch the bats emerge, according to the weekend tablers from Bat Conservation International, is atop the bridge. From there you can see the bats as they stream out over Town Lake, the reflected light left in the sky mirrored in the water below.

The Austin colony is the largest urban colony in the country and, perhaps the world. (The world is a big place, and Texans like biggest.) Between 500,000 and 700,000 bats live in the expansion joints of the Congress Avenue Bridge, exclusively females and babies; a similarly sized colony of males lives nearby. They eat somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 pounds of insects every night, depending on whose numbers you trust. In October the bats will migrate south for the winter, and the viewings will end, to resume in the spring of next year.

Farther south is a colony of 20 to 40 million bats, and according to Bat Conservation International, the emergence is even more spectacular.

The Austinites love the bats now—or the bulk of them, anyway—but it wasn't always so. In the mid-80s, when the bats moved in, the American-Statesman unilaterally declared a public health crisis, mostly because everyone knows that bats carry disease, drink blood, and are really blood-sucking vampires. In reality, of course, bats tend to inhibit the spread of disease by eating insects, but facts have rarely inhibited good yellow journalism.

Today the colony is, well, an attraction. All the tourists I met had gone or were planning to go, and you can buy postcards of the bats at the convenience stores nearby. The American-Statesman has come around as well, and now provides free parking in the evenings for bat-watchers.

Best of all, there's a bat statue at the corner of South Congress and Barton Springs Road. It may look more like the bat of the Batsignal than an actual living, flying bat, but still, it's easier to find—and more recognizable—than the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan.

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