Lily and I ended the month of July with a visit to Bracken Cave Preserve in Garden Ridge, just outside of San Antonio. Bracken Cave is home to TWENTY MILLION Mexican free-tailed bats in the summer. Yes, you read that right. TWENTY. MILLION. It is the largest bat colony on the entire planet and the largest concentration of mammals in the world. It is a maternal colony, meaning the entire colony is made up of females (and later in the summer, their pups).
The preserve is privately owned by Bat Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy. In previous years, the only people that were able to access the site to see the bat emergences were members of BCI. This summer, they opened the preserve up a couple of times for non-members and I am so grateful they did. We booked two months in advance and the openings sold out relatively quickly. I appreciated the small crowd size due to their limited amount of reservations. It created a much better experience not being crowded in the relatively small viewing area (and we could social distance easily).
They will contact you a couple of days before the reserved day to give you an update on what time to arrive, depending on when the bats have been emerging. We arrived shortly before 7PM and had time to walk the trails, learn some really interesting stuff from the volunteers (uh - there are almost EIGHTY feet of guano on the cave floor WHAAAAT), and attend the pre-emergence bat talk. Then you move to the viewing area and wait.
The bats emerged just before 8:30PM. Before they started streaming out, you could see them swarming right at the mouth of the cave. I almost felt like I was hallucinating because the cave is dark and you can just kind of see blurs of movement and you wonder if you're even actually seeing that or if it's just the dark playing tricks on you. The stream starts thin but steadily grows until it is just a massive black cloud of swirling black blobs. The bats will circle up out of the cave in what the volunteers referred to as a bat-nado until they got enough lift and could head out to find food. We saw a Swainson's hawk picking a couple of them off mid-air. After the emergence had been going on for ten minutes or so, a volunteer led us to the overlook on the other side of the cave so we could experience the bats flying right over us. It was so damn cool to experience it from that different perspective.
We stayed until it was too dark to see anything else. The bats were still just pouring out and would continue to do so until around 11PM.
I highly recommend making a visit to Bracken Cave if you have the opportunity to. It's a once in a lifetime experience to see the world's largest bat colony in all of it's glory right here in Texas! If you do make a visit, here are a few small tips to help make your visit as amazing as possible.
- Wear closed toe shoes - for comfort and safety while walking along the trails and through the mostly undeveloped property in the dark
- Bring bug spray - there weren't mosquitoes but the gnats were pretty annoying!
- Bring plenty of water - Texas summers are hot and don't be fooled into thinking that because it is in the evening, it will be cool. There is no water on site so bring enough to last the duration of your visit!
- Take some amazing videos - videos are far superior to photos if you want to really capture the magic. Slow-mo videos are really amazing for this, too!