Nature’s Theater of the Night

August 1, 2007 by  
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The Waugh Bridge Bat Colony Emerges with Sundown

When one thinks of Houston’s wide array of outdoor activities, one seldom thinks of bat watching. However, the summer months are a perfect time to enjoy a unique Houston experience: the sunset emergence of the Waugh Bridge bats. Situated at the corner of Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway, this seemingly inconspicuous bridge is home to more than 250,000 Mexican Free-tailed Bats.

The Stage: it’s all about perspective
There are several ideal locations for viewing the event, including the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony Observation Deck; the gently sloping, grassy northeast bank of Buffalo Bayou; the Waugh Bridge sidewalk and the Gus M. Wortham Memorial Fountain. The first two locations are known to provide the most memorable experiences.

Directly across from the American General building, the observation deck provides an amazing view of the bats’ initial swirling. On the third Friday of each month, volunteers are on hand to provide information about the bats 30 minutes prior to sundown.

The grass on the northeast side of the bayou is an ideal location and one of the more popular sites for simple relaxation. Here, observers are able to take their favorite blanket and relax on the slope with the many eager onlookers.

People also have the option of viewing the bats’ emergence from the bayou itself. The Best of Buffalo Bayou, an organization providing canoe and pontoon boat tours of the bayou, offers tours of the event. The tours take place on the second Friday of each month, and can accommodate up to 10 guests. In addition to providing a unique viewing perspective, guides are available to ensure the tour will be an educational experience.

The only location from where the public is asked not to view the bats is directly under the bridge, for this can disturb them. Though it would put observers in the middle of the action, it would be difficult to enjoy since the bats rid themselves of their waste prior to flight.

The Performers: creatures of the night
Mexican Free-tailed Bats are medium sized with a life expectancy of 13 years and an average wingspan of 11 to 13 inches. It is estimated that 100 million of these bats live in the Texas Hill Country. At sunset, the bats make their nightly debut in search of insects. The Waugh Bridge bats play a vital role in the area’s overall comfort during the summer months by eating up to 1,200 tiny insects per hour (among which is Houston’s arch nemesis, the mosquito).

Though most bat colonies migrate to a warmer climate during the cold winter months, the Waugh Bridge Bat Colony resides in Houston year round, making it the only known bridge in Texas to house such a large colony of Mexican Free-tailed Bats for 12 months. Even the 1.5 million bats living under the Congress Ave. Bridge in Austin migrate to Mexico in the fall.

But why choose the Waugh Bridge? The area provides the bats with a constant supply of fresh water and plenty of insects to eat; while the bridge was coincidentally designed as an ideal shelter. Just as Goldilocks would say, the spaces between the expansion joints provide the bats with a home that is “just right.”

Typically the bats emerge around sunset. It is recommended to arrive 15-30 minutes early since only the bats know precisely when they will emerge. On days that are rainy or foggy, be prepared to expect delays and smaller emerging groups. Although these performers have not fallen victim to a Hollywood-style pampered mentality, they are likely to refuse to leave their home if the temperature falls below 50 degrees.

Just to be sure to dispel any concerns or myths, the bats are gentle creatures that, if left alone, will not harm visitors. It is, however, recommended by the city of Houston that visitors do not attempt to touch the bats, being that they may bite in self-defense.

…and, Action!
The initial emergence of the bats can be seen as the antithesis of a theatrical production. Where most plays begin shortly after a haunting anticipatory silence, the bats foreshadow their flight with a constant chatter. The chatter is a social call that the bats use to communicate within the different sections of the crevices.

As the bats fall from the bridge and spread their wings, they are too close to the ground to gain ample speed for travel. Instead, they fly around in a circle of thousands creating a vortex. As the swirling mass gets larger, the bats gain speed, which in turn enables them to achieve the proper altitude needed for flight. The spectacle is breathtaking.

Once the bats achieve an adequate speed, they shoot off the vortex together in the direction of downtown hoping to find moths and maybe even the end of a happy hour. The overall experience is quite charming. Sitting on the grassy slope, old friends are standing, pointing together toward the sky. Couples are sitting on a blanket holding each other. The bats fly against the orange hues of a dying sun, and then as they turn, the swarm appears to create black gaping holes in the Houston skyline. All in all, the departure can last for 45 minutes to an hour, but the largest groups will usually leave within the first 30 minutes.

Epilogue
It is not uncommon to find expressions of nature’s majesty to be theatrical. As the summer months wane and the temperature rises, it becomes increasingly more difficult for Houstonians to leave the artificially cooled shelters of their houses, offices and cars. The Waugh Bridge Bat Colony gives its audience a new diverse perspective; reminding humans they are not the only large population that inhabit this space, and that the choice to live together can result in the enjoyment of a beautiful evening.

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