April 19, 2012 at 8:20 AM ET
The public will finally get to see a natural, nightly show that’s totally batty.
Bracken Cave, the Texas home of the world’s largest bat colony, is open for public tours for the very first time.
From April through October, millions of Mexican free-tailed bats move into the cave, which sits on 697 acres of protected land near New Braunfels, Texas. The summer gathering creates one of the largest concentrations of mammals on earth.
“We haven’t actually counted them all, but estimates are somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 million bats,” said Fran Hutchins, Bracken Bat Cave coordinator for Bat Conservation International (BCI), which owns the property.
Since 1992, only BCI members have been allowed to witness the nightly tornado of hungry bats emerging from a sinkhole at the mouth of the cave. But this summer BCI has joined up with a neighboring attraction, Natural Bridge Caverns, to offer public tours to the cave.
“It’s a spectacular sight. The bats form a vortex dense enough to show up on airport radar,” said Hutchins. “They fly in a 60-mile radius in search of food and in one night will eat hundreds of tons of insects, which makes the farmers around here very happy.”
Tours, which last three to four hours, begin with an orientation at Natural Bridge Caverns. Visitors then form a convoy and drive down a gravel road on BCI property to the cave.
“It’s a remote site that has been kept purposefully natural,” said Travis Wuest, whose family has owned Natural Bridge Caverns for three generations. “We tell people to bring binoculars because there’s a whole ecosystem of other animals, including falcons, hawks, raptors and owls, that come out to try and eat the bats.”
The Bracken Bat Flight tours are scheduled several times a week, through October. Reservations are required, as tours are limited to 60 people per night. Cost: $24.99 (adult or child), with a portion of the proceeds supporting conservation of the Bracken site. (Combination tickets with Natural Bridge Caverns are also available.)
Hutchins said bat fans should also be sure to visit Austin, about an hour away. “Bracken Cave is home to the largest bat colony in the world, but Austin is home to the largest urban bat colony in the world.”
Austin’s 1.5 million bats make their summer home underneath a downtown bridge. Each night hundreds of bat-watchers gather by the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, along the river banks of Lady Bird Lake, to watch the city bats head out for their evening meal of moths, mosquitoes and pests.
Austin celebrates its bats with a free annual Bat Fest, which this year will take place on Saturday, Aug. 25.
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