Monday, June 10, 2013

Bats, Batman, and, Keeping Austin Weird

Austin, Texas has plenty to offer both its citizens and visitors to be sure, but, perhaps, the most unusual thing it offers is the comings and goings taking place underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge.  In fact, during certain times of the year, there are literally millions of comings and goings taking place each and every night.  And the culprits behind all this nightly activity are bats, Mexican free-tailed bats, who make up one very large bat colony.
Mexican free-tailed bats are no strangers to Texas or to Austin in particular, but when Austin’s historic Congress Avenue Bridge was modernized in 1980, the redesign required spaces to be built underneath the bridge infrastructure which allowed for expansion and contraction.  It is in these spaces that bats have found a place to call home, when they are away from their other home in Mexico.

Spanning Austin’s Lady Bird Lake, the official name of the Congress Avenue Bridge is actually the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge, named in honor of the outspoken former Texas state treasurer and governor.  Most people still refer to the bridge as just the “Congress Avenue Bridge,” in much the same way that a lot of renamed roads, bridges, and buildings across the country have never caught on with a new name.  But, if a new name didn’t catch on, new digs for millions of bats did, and the rest is history.

The bats that inhabit the bridge are almost exclusively female, and make it their home during the summer months when they give birth to their pups.  At dusk, the bats take off en masse to spend the night consuming vast quantities of bugs down the lower stretches of the Colorado River.  And when they take flight, they provide quite a spectacle for those on or near the bridge.  During the times when the bats are flying, spectators line the top of the bridge, the Austin-American Statesman property, or, watch from open air restaurants which line the lake.  Another popular way to see the bats is to take a boat out underneath the bridge.  If you don’t have your own boat, you can easily purchase a seat on one of the commercial bat excursion boats that tie up just below the Austin Hyatt Regency.

My preferred method for watching bats has always been the commercial boats, and for a couple good reasons.  When the bats are flying, there is no better place to be than directly under the bridge. As these unique winged mammals emerge, the view of them pouring out of the bridge against the backdrop of the darkening sky is simply amazing.  Viewers looking down from the bridge don’t see such a spectacular view.

But, there is another good reason to be in a boat.  The bats are not always cooperative.  On some nights, the bats, for whatever reason don’t explode into the sky.  Instead, they stay hunkered down deep within their protective holes in the bridge.  People, who stand for hours on the bridge, or, at other venues along the lake, have nothing to show for their troubles except disappointment.  This is not as true on a commercial boat.  Prior to the estimated launch time of the bats, the tour boat operators take their passengers on a nice leisurely cruise up Lady Bird Lake.  In the process, passengers (many holding their favorite adult beverage) enjoy viewing a beautiful sunset over the lake, rowing teams in action, a beautiful view of the Austin skyline, and, even the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughn.  So, even if the bats don’t come out in force, those taking the bat boat excursions end up with an enjoyable, or at least an inebriated, evening.

Several weeks ago, I once again decided to go see the bats.  Accompanying a friend on her first trip to Austin, we purchased a couple of boat tickets and enjoyed the pre-bat cruise on Lady Bird Lake just as the sun was setting.  After the lake cruise, and just before we approached Congress Bridge to see the bats, we began getting certain disturbing signals from our so-called “Captain,” who looked like he was not a day over 16.  The long and short of it was that the bats had not been too active recently, so, it might not be a good night to view bats after all.  Of course, nothing of the sort was mentioned prior to the ticket money being exchanged on the dock.  It must have slipped the “Captain’s” mind. True to his word, the bat experience was underwhelming, although, we did see many thousands of bats emerge out from under the bridge.  That may seem like a lot, but not if you are expecting to see a million.

There is always a silver lining to every cloud it seems.  Just as all the spectators were about to take leave, a man suddenly leaped from the bridge, arms spread wide as if in flight, and plunged into Lady Bird Lake.  It seems that a “Batman” had arrived just in time to try and save the evening.  The crowd cheered as the “Batman’s” head suddenly appeared above the dark waters.  The man, no doubt having spent the last several hours imbibing in one or more of Austin’s famed Sixth Street drinking establishments, had apparently gotten his superheroes confused.  It is Superman who can fly and “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” not Batman.  Heck, even I know that.  I also know that "Batman" did his part in continuing to "Keep Austin Weird."