HOW TO EXPERIENCE AUSTIN'S BATS
Bat Watching 101
When most people think of Austin, visions of things like tasty taco and musicians performing all over town come to mind. But the city is also known for its love of certain winged nocturnal animals that appear at sunset. Yep, those are the Mexican Free-Tailed Bats.
A 1980 renovation transformed the Congress Avenue Bridge into an ideal bat cave, soon attracting migrating Mexican free-tailed bats. Decades later, Austin's bat numbers have swelled and locals have adopted the beloved creatures as neighbors who happily handle the city's bug mitigation and provide an amazing nightly show.
Congress Avenue Bridge. Credit Pierce Ingram.
When to See the Bats
Starting in late March and continuing through early fall, North America's largest urban bat population calls Austin home. The bats begin to wake up and start their night flight around sunset. The first few bats begin to trickle out from under the bridge then. After the sun sets, the show really begins, and hundreds to thousands of bats pour out and cascade East over Lady Bird Lake.
The best time to witness the bats is around sunset, but the nightly show can take place anywhere from 7:30 to 9:45 p.m. It can take as long as 45 minutes for all of the bats to exit the bridge for the night. Plan to arrive early in order to find parking and get your spot.
Where to Watch
From late spring until early fall, get ready for the sunset show by heading towards the grassy hill vantage point of the Statesman Bat Observation Center, adjacent to the bridge. Paid parking is available at the Austin American-Statesman, 305 S. Congress Ave., or you can go down the steps at the corner of Congress Avenue and Barton Springs Road. Bring a blanket, some chairs and sit back and relax.
Visitors and residents alike line up nightly on the Congress Avenue Bridge to witness the bats fly out from beneath the bridge, forming a surreal dark cloud as they ascend into the night sky. Arrive early for a front row spot (the sidewalk gets crowded) and be sure to face the east, as the bats will fly out in that direction.
If you'd rather make it a more active experience, you can watch the bats emerge from the trail. There are many spots along the Butler Hike & Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake where you can stand to enjoy the view. Try to find a spot east of the Congress Avenue Bridge with a clear view of the sky, but be sure to not block the trail from runners, walkers and cyclists passing by. You can also rent a kayak, stand up paddleboard board, canoe or water bike and join the other aquatic adventurers that float around under the bridge around sunset.
Bat cruises on Lady Bird Lake. Credit Geoff Duncan.
You can get an incredible view of the bats from the water with Lone Star Riverboat or Capital Cruises, which put you right in the middle of the action on Lady Bird Lake. Or, ply the waters yourself with Live Love Paddle or Austin Kayak Tours, which both offer nighttime bat-watching kayak excursions.
Austin's resident bats are Mexican free-tailed bats, which migrate each spring from central Mexico to various roosts all over the southwestern U.S.
On their nightly flights the bats eat anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 pounds of insects, including mosquitoes and harmful agricultural pests.
Austin's bats are almost all female! In early June each bat gives birth to one single baby bat (known as a pup).
It takes about five weeks after birth for the pups to learn to fly and hunt insects on their own. In the meantime, the mommy bats nurse their babies and each can locate her own pup among the thousands under the bridge.
At the end of the season, you can see roughly 1.5 million bats ascending into the summer sky.
Austin Bat Fest
Austin celebrates its unofficial mascots every year in mid-August (which also happens to be peak bat migrating season) right on the Congress Avenue Bridge. Bat Fest has become the biggest bat-viewing party of the year. Expect tons of live music, local food and drink, more than 50 arts and crafts vendors, children's activities and a bat costume contest (of course!).
Embrace the wonderful weirdness of Austin and come out to see the spectacle of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats for yourself. Be sure to share your bat-watching experience by posting pictures on Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #TrueAustin.
Learn more about bat conservation efforts at Bat Conservation International.