What 10 Million Bats Looks Like

They don’t look like anything I can describe, is what they look like.

There is no way to capture in a photograph, or even a video, the enormity and beauty of this many animals moving all at once, together as a colony and individually as mammals, feeding.

They fly together, and they fly into each other, they head straight out into the sky and they turn and head back into the fray. They swoop to grab insects and they swoop to dodge raptors. And all of this happens at once, for an hour straight as they emerge from their cave for the night.

What I can describe is our experience going to see them.

We drove to a ranch about 20 minutes south of Garner State Park in central Texas, where we were led through the ranch gate and along the gravel road, up through cattle grazing, under live oaks, to a clearing by a ticket booth. Once we’d signed legal waivers, we walked up a path to the cave entrance and sat ourselves down to wait for the bats.

Our tour guide answered questions, but he more stood there with his gun at his belt joking about guano than giving an informative lecture. Ah well, I did learn:

These are Mexican free-tailed bats (like the ones that live in Ruby, Arizona, with Leslie), and this is the second-largest colony of them in the world. They arrive in mid-March and mate over the summer, then the males fly off to bachelor-only caves and the females stay to give birth and raise the young, until they all migrate together again starting in September.

And then the bats emerged in front of me and I didn’t really hear much else.

Except for the soft susurration of leather bat wings flapping overhead. For an hour—an hour—they flew out of the cave, over our heads, and formed a river of bats that flowed off into the distance, farther than I could see.

We watched hawks catch them, and we watched the moon and planets and stars grow brighter behind them, and still they kept coming out of the cave.

By the time there were as many bats returning to the cave as there were bats leaving, our necks were tired and our brains overloaded with trying to make sense of so many individuals acting together as one.

The ranch owners charged us only $12 to see something so foreign and at once so deeply ingrained in our understanding of herd animals. I would pay again to see those bats tonight if the tour were open. And again.

This colony has never had ”white-nose” syndrome, which has killed about 90% of three other bat species in North America.

If you have the opportunity to see a large colony of bats in flight, go do it soon.

Because today is our final day at Garner State Park, here’s a photo dump of the last few days, unrelated to bats!

The Civilian Conservation Corps-built dance floor where couples have been doing the two-step for 80 years.
Rows of cypress along the Rio Frio, minutes before swimmers took over.
Hill Country

4 thoughts to “What 10 Million Bats Looks Like”

  1. I donated to Bat Conservationists International for years. I’m sad to hear from you they think the Austin urban colony is decreasing. They only take 45 minutes to exit the bridge, and are estimated at 3/4-1 1/2 million bats. They are amazing! So glad you got to see them.

    1. I’m sorry, Renee, I didn’t mean to imply the Austin colony is decreasing. Only that people who had seen them and the Rio Frio colony said the Austin colony seemed very small in comparison.