Wanderlist – Bat Emergences
Bats are mysterious and magnificent creatures, often seen decorating the evening sky as they fly out of caves, sinkholes, forests, and from underneath bridges. In this episode, we’ll talk about bat emergences and where to safely see them. We’ll also answer questions you submitted via our Instagram account last week.
Under the Texas Sky: S2:E12: WANDERLIST – BAT EMERGENCES
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[MUS—BATMAN TV THEME]
[NARRATION] Back in grade school I couldn’t wait to get home from school to watch Batman. Sure, it was more or less a comedic look at detectives and crime fighting, but there was a certain mystique about Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. They had all this scientific equipment back in Bat Cave. This fascinated me and anytime my family went on vacation I always asked if we could include a cave visit on the itinerary. Longhorn Cavern State Park is just a few miles outside the town of Burnet in the Texas Hill Country. It was one of my first experiences in a cave and the first time I saw bats in person. How could they hang upside down way up on the ceiling of the cave? I thought it was the coolest thing.
On the Wanderlist, TPW Magazine Editor Louie Bond and I are talking bat emergences and some of the best places to see them in Texas. And, we’ll answer some of your questions about bats submitted via our Instagram account last week.
Stay with us.
[NARRATION] From Texas Parks and Wildlife, this is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist. I’m Randall Maxwell and visiting with us by phone is Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine Editor, Louie Bond.
[RANDALL & LOUIE]
[RANDALL] Well Louie, this episode of Wanderlist is about bat emergences.
[LOUIE] Yeah Randall, we first ran this Wanderlist in the October 2019 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine.
[RANDALL] We got a lot of questions on our Instagram account this time about bats.
[LOUIE] You know Randall they asked so many great questions, I think we can just spend the whole episode answering those questions.
[RANDALL] I agree. Let’s get right to it Louie. Our first Instragram question is from Abagail D Piotrowski, and it’s “Where can we go to see the bats?”
[LOUIE] Well the bats we see in these great dramatic bat emergences, they migrate here from Mexico each Spring and they go back in late October, mid-November, about that time of the year. So that’s when we see them. And the most dramatic of those emergences happens in August and September when the young pups join in with the moms and dads to pretty much double the numbers of bats. Where to see them is really a lot of places in Central Texas. Some urban and some are more rural and a few other spots. Some of the ones we talk about in the Wanderlist are the Congress Avenue bridge in Austin, that’s a very urban location. There’s 1.5 million bats there, and that’s the largest urban bat population in North America believe it or not. And a whole lot of these bats settled there in the 1980s. There were already a lot of bats, but when they did some remodeling and renovating of the Congress Avenue bridge they put in places where bats could roost, and so that really brought in a lot of bats. The bats brought in a lot of tourists. A hundred and forty thousand people every year watch that bat emergence and it also brings ten million dollars to the Austin economy. Another one is lot more rural, the Devil’s Sinkhole State Natural Area and it’s way out in West Texas in Rocksprings, three million bats there. And they fly out 50 to 75 miles every night eating bugs and doing all the great things that bats do every night. And we’ve got one in a state park, Caprock Canyons, it’s called Clarity Tunnel, it’s an old abandoned railroad tunnel with half a million of these bats. The pups aren’t born in the tunnel but they’re born in nearby caves and bridges and then they come back to the tunnel to do their flights. Another state park tunnel is the Old Tunnel State Park that’s in Fredericksburg. It’s been a home for three million Mexican Freetail Bats and cave myotis bats.
[RANDALL] And that Old Tunnel State Park it was actually an old railroad tunnel right?
[LOUIE] Right, and it was abandoned in 1942 and that’s I guess when the bats came and declared it their own, and I’ve been there myself. It’s a great place to watch a bat emergence and I believe there’s a really fantastic hamburger joint right next door which is very odd for being way out in the country like that.
[RANDALL] Yum yum.
[LOUIE] Bats and burgers. Another big urban colony can be found at the Waugh Drive Bridge, just two miles West of downtown Houston. And then there’s a couple of rural places. The Frio Bat Cave near Concan, if you’ve ever been out along that beautiful icy clear Frio river, there’s a bat cave out that way that houses 10 to 12 million Mexican Freetail Bats. And then there’s the Bracken Cave Preserve. That is the world’s largest bat colony, wooooooo! It’s on the Northern outskirts of San Antonio. Bat Conservation International, we’ll be talking about them the whole episode, they purchased the cave in 1991 and now they own nearly 1500 acres of the ranch land surrounding it. Oh there’s so many others Randall, but we just can’t talk about them all today. The Bamburger Ranch, there’s one at the San Antonio Riverwalk, Kickapoo Caverns State Park, more in Houston. There are a lot of bat emergences, even in my little home town of Wimberley we have bat emergences at our Cypress Creek bridge now and people are starting to come and watch.
[RANDALL] Are there any rules for watching bat emergences?
[LOUIE] That might seem like a funny question but there actually are. You don’t want to upset nature. We want to be there as passive observers, but certainly not participants in any way. So, things you should know. It’s really unpredictable. They don’t like set a watch and an alarm clock goes off and off they go, so be patient. Keep your distance. You don’t want to get too close and disrupt anything. Don’t touch, of course. Don’t bring bright lights, no big flashes of your camera. That’s going to upset the occurrence of nature here. Of course you don’t want to bother the bats, so you want to keep your voice low as well.
[RANDALL] So how many species of bats live in Texas? And that was an Instagram question from Ms Trouble In Mind and also from Jennings Buckel”
[LOUIE] You know we have the highest number of bat species in the country, so that’s pretty amazing. Of the forty-seven species in this country, we have thirty-two of them here in Texas. There’s almost fourteen hundred of them world-wide if you’re interested. There are bats everywhere. The most common here in Texas is the Mexican Freetail, which actually has the name Brazilian in there. That was what it was originally called, but I guess since they come from Mexico they sort of adopted what everyone else was calling them, the Mexican Freetail bat. Bats are so fascinating in a million ways. They are the second largest group of mammals in the world. The second only of rodents, and the bats belong to an order, I’m probably going to say this incorrectly, Chiroptera. And it’s from the Greek, two Greek words meaning meaning hand and wing. So a lot of times when you think about it, because their forelimbs are arms, what would be arms on us, or actually those wings. And so they’re the only mammals who can really fly in a true and sustained kind of way. And they’re also one of the most diverse groups of animals on earth. There are all kinds of bats, from very tiny to very large. Some look like little puppy dogs, those are mostly fruit bats. And then there are ones that can eat insects. They have these really tight little faces. And then there’s the pollinators that have to reach way down there into those flowers to get the nectar, so they have very long snouts. You’re going to see all kinds of bats in Texas, but most predominantly and especially in these bat emergences are the Mexican Freetail bats.
[RANDALL] Wow, so I learned something. (laughs) I did not know it was Chiropt.. how did you pronounce it? Chiroptera?
[LOUIE] Chiroptera I think.
[RANDALL] Hey another Instragram question we got was “When is the common birthing season?” And that came from Jodi Parker.
[LOUIE] Well, there’s a super short answer, and that is June. Exactly June. So the bats begin arriving in Central Texas in late February. And the females have already mated with the males, and are already pregnant. And so they don’t hibernate, they just migrate on North and by summer the male and female Freetails here have divided. They have bachelor colonies, and they have nursery colonies. So the male bats, unlike some of the helpful species, male bats do not help raise the babies. So they form bachelor colonies that are relatively small where all the guys hang out together.
[LOUIE] And then there’s the nursery colonies and in contrast these are very large. And they have up to millions of bats in these nursery colonies, each one. So the weirdest thing about bats is that they just have one baby a year. And this is also a conservation problem for them because of course if they lose that baby they’re not going to have another one until next year. Some species have tons of babies. Bats, only one per year. So they all give birth at the same time, peaking between the first and third week of June. Sometimes it’s different because of weather but that’s basically when it is. And the newborn young, they’re called pups, like the dogs, but they weigh nearly a quarter of their mother’s weight and are often more than half as long as their mother. So you can imagine in human terms it would be like giving birth to a forty-pound baby.
[RANDALL] Wow. In a cave, while hanging? Really?
[LOUIE] Well, that seems like the hardest part to me. Birth's not easy, but hanging from a cave with maybe millions of other bats around you? So they give birth while clinging to the roof with both thumbs and one or both feet. And the babies are born naked just like us often with their eyes open. Now as soon as the baby is born the mother carefully cleans and nurses it, and you know it’s connected by its umbilical cord for awhile. And what happens during this time is that the baby gets used to the mother’s scent and voice. As you can imagine the minute they get separated they’re going to have to find each other amongst all these millions of bats. So they have this really great clinging response too. And they use their large feet and thumbs to hold on to the walls. And their little tiny teeth to hold on to their mothers and other bats. So scientists say that when they take, try to take a single baby from a cave wall, as many as fifteen could be pulled off because they’re all attached to each other.
[RANDALL] Wow, we’ve got some pretty big bat nurseries in Texas, right?
[LOUIE] It’s incredible when you think about all these millions of bats having babies all at the same time. It really pretty much doubles the whole population. Take Bracken Cave, the largest nursery in the world. They have 20 million Freetail bats, and that’s in a nursery cave, so it doubles when the bats give birth. So that’s twenty million Freetail bats to forty million Freetail bats.
[RANDALL] Wow, I’d like them to all come over to my house and eat all the mosquitos that seem to come out about six o’clock. I know they eat a lot of mosquitos right?
[LOUIE] That’s one of the best things about bats. They just eat tons and I mean literally tons of bugs like mosquitos and plenty of other agriculture pests. They spread seed. They just do all kinds of great things for us in so many ways.
[NARRATION] Next Louie and I will discuss some very real threats to our bat population. But first…
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[NARRATION] This is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist from Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Randall Maxwell…Wanderlist is a collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. Editor, Louie Bond, and I have been talking about Bats in Texas, their biology and habitats. But a few short years ago a new danger to bat populations entered the United States and eventually made its way to Texas, and that's where Louie and I pick up our conversation.
[RANDALL & LOUIE]
[RANDALL] Another Instagram question. What is the current state of the White-nosed fungus epidemic? And that came from Hawkeward Cosplay.
[LOUIE] That’s a great Instagram name isn’t it? So, first I’ll tell you what White-nose fungus is all about. It’s been called the most precipitous wildlife collapse of the past century. Those are serious terms. And because we have the highest number of bats of any state in the country, we're especially concerned here in Texas. In North America, nearly six million bats have been killed by white nose syndrome. And the reason they call it white nose is that the fungus itself is actually white and collects around the snout of a hibernating bat. Once that becomes irritating to the bats, it wakes up and – it wakes up too early because of it. So, it's still cold outside; it doesn't have the layer of fat that it needs. And so it either starves to death or it goes out to look for some food. We ran a story in our blog back in March, I think it was, about the first case of white nose syndrome in a Texas bat. That was a really remarkable discovery, It was a cave myotis bat in Gillespie County in Central Texas, and that was in February. And up until this point, the fungus had been detected for a year or so, but there were no signs of the disease. But it's killed millions of hibernating bats in the eastern part of the United states. And the fungus, itself, is now in 21 Texas counties.
[RANDALL] So, how did this White-nose syndrome get started Louie?
[LOUIE] Well, no one really knows for sure Randal. It's an Old World fungus, but one day a little bit of that deadly organism – maybe it was just a spot on a spelunker's shoe – it made the leap all the way over the Atlantic, and for some reason wreaked havoc on North American bats, because they had no ability to combat it. When it was first discovered, it was 2006 in Upstate New York, and it was really deadly there. .
[RANDALL] Wow, that sounds serious. Is there any hope for our Texas bats?
[LOUIE] There is hope Randall. Our winters are much warmer say, than in Upstate New York. So, many of our bats either don't hibernate, or they don't hibernate as long. So, it's hoped that they're going to be less susceptible to this fungus, which is very cold-loving. So, 19 species of bats in Texas don't regularly hibernate. For example, the Mexican Freetail Bats – these are the ones that we talk about in these emergences – they're primarily migratory. So, we're hoping that it's not going to really cause high levels of mortality in species like these. But Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has been working really hard on white nose syndrome, and they've funded close to a million dollars of research to monitor projects across the state.
[RANDALL] So I got another Instagram question, and this is from Noel C. Shaver. “Anything citizens can do to help with this White-nose syndrome?”
[LOUIE] Many of the things we can do to help with white nose syndrome are the things that help bats in general. The first thing that we can all do is to educate ourselves and educate others. Bats are diverse and beautiful creatures and they coexist so perfectly with us. Some of the things that we can do is to reduce our pesticide use. We can take care of natural bat habitats like these caves. We can protect our water quality – bats rely on that as well. You can even build a bat house in your yard to help house some bats. There's a lot of great information on all the things you can do, and debunking all those weird bat myths, and that's all on the Bat Conservation International website, and that's batcon.org.
[RANDALL] Wow that almost sounds like a crime fighting website. Batcon.org, but on to another Instagram question. I want to try to get as much as I can in here. “Can bats spread COVID-19?” and this is obviously relevant now, and that was from Rudd Charles by the way.
[LOUIE] I think that’s a fantastic question; I know we've all heard stories about maybe somebody ate a bat from an Asian Market and that's how it spread to humans. I don't think they really have the answers to all of that now. So, I got my information from Bat Conservation International; they address Covid-19 in several ways on their website. They say bats are natural hosts of coronaviruses, including some that are closely related to SARS and these Covid viruses. Other wildlife can also be hosts to coronaviruses. So they're not really a threat to human health if you just protect bats and leave them undisturbed. They don't spread the disease among humans. Only humans spread Covid-19 to other humans; I think that is important for all of us to remember.
[RANDALL] Very good advice Louie. Well our last Instagram question is one of those many myths about bats. And this comes from Stove Pipe Outdoors, they ask “Can bats see?”
[LOUIE] You know Randall, this is a great question as well, because, I think a lot of people assume that bats are blind. But they're not; they can, in fact, see quite well using their eyes. Now, most bats do have advanced ears and that gives them a form or vision in the dark known as echolocation. I think that's what people are thinking about. So, they're good ears are wonderful, but that doesn't mean they have bad eyes. So, bats use their good hearing to find food in the dark, and they use their good eyes to find food during the day. And their vision is tuned to low light conditions, so they're really good at seeing at dawn and dusk light. And they may not have as good color vision as we do, but their overall vision is better than ours – especially during those times of dawn and dusk.
[RANDALL] Wow, such great information, Louie. I really appreciate you spending the time with us and talking about bat emergences.
[LOUIE] Well, Randall there’s so much more information about bats and bat emergences. You can look at our blog, tpwmag.com; you can look at our online articles at tpwmagazine.com, or go back to Bat Conservation International at batcon.org. All great places to go to answer all the rest of y our bat questions.
[RANDALL] Thanks for your time Louie.
[LOUIE] It’s been great talking to you Randall.
[MUS—GOT THAT HAY FEVER]
[NARRATION] We’re done wandering for this podcast…but Louie Bond and I—or our executive producer, Cecilia Nasti—will be back with more fascinating things to see and places to explore in the Lone Star State.
Before heading to any state park, historic site or natural area, call ahead.
Also, keep an eye on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Instagram account, which is @TexasParksWildlife. We’ll use it to notify you of some of the Wanderlist subjects we plan to cover in the weeks ahead and give you a chance to ask questions, some of which we’ll answer on the podcast.
Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife. We produce our Wanderlist series in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine in the Media Production Studios in Austin, Texas. Yours truly did our sound design. Whitney Bishop does our social media. And we get distribution and web help from Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing.
Stream or download Under the Texas Sky and Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave a review while you’re there and let us know how we’re doing and what you’d like to hear.
Until next time…keep on wandering Under the Texas Sky. I’m Randall Maxwell.