Take It Like a Tourist: Bat Watching
As you might have noticed, this summer we are running a few new regular features. On Wednesdays, we’re writing about taking on the city as tourists — even though we live here. So, we might write about packing up the family to check out a swimming hole, taking part in a tour or checking out a nearby resort for a staycation. Here’s to a summer full of exploring the best city around!
I’m usually a stickler about bedtime. That’s (one reason) why I’ve never taken my kid to Blues on the Green, Deep Eddy Movie Nights or one of the Round Rock Express games. The thing is, my little dude never sleeps in. So, I’m generally guaranteed a grumpy child the next day, which puts everyone in the family in a sour mood. That and the fact that my time starts when my kid hits the sack, so I guard it as the commodity it is (especially during the summer).
That said, the older he gets, the more I throw caution to the wind and remind myself that it is summer, after all. The days of later bedtimes also happens to coincide with what local nonprofit Bat Conservation International calls the best time to see the bats emerge (late July through mid-August, when newborn pups go foraging with their mamas). In case you haven’t heard about this seasonal event, from March until early November, one and a half million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge nightly at dusk from their part-time homes underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge.
During one of these weak moments, I noticed a deal site advertise a bat cruise. Seeing the bats emerge was something I hadn’t done since before my son was born. And the idea of combining bat watching (which, truth be told, can sometimes be underwhelming) with time on a boat sounded like a fun way to do it. So, I bought the deal.
Before proceeding any further, I should mention that, if you don’t know, there is a grassy area in between the Austin American-Statesman building and the Congress Bridge where you can bring blankets and a picnic and watch the bats emerge (much more comfortable than standing on the Bridge for an hour, I would imagine). You can check the Bat Hotline, run by Bat Conservation International, for the latest flight times at (512) 327-9721. For more information on going that route, check out BCI’s tips. Lastly, if you have older kids or are way more adventurous than me, you can see the bats on a kayak tour.
So, back to the boat bat tours. There are two main companies who operate bat boat tours: Capital Cruises and Lonestar Riverboat. Both companies seem pretty comparable, and at $10 a person (or less, for kids), it’s really not a bad deal. The boats depart half an hour before sunset, and check-in generally starts about half an hour before that. Parking might be the biggest challenge to seeing the bats. Both companies suggest parking at City Hall or the Long Center (both pay lots), or you can try your luck at Auditorium Shores or a few other private garages. If you want to be safe, you might want to plan to drop the kids off with one parent and have the other parent park and meet you. As you might expect, departure times are very strict, so it’s best to err on the side of arriving early.
Departure times will vary, depending on the time of year and the emergence of the bats, but during the summer, departure times are around 7:45pm. If you don’t mind trying during the school year, keep in mind that with Daylight Savings, departures are significantly earlier in late October, since the bats stick around until November. The boat takes you towards Red Bud Isle, and it’s actually really interesting to see the skyline and the Hike and Bike Trail from a different perspective as the sun is going down. The guide will add in some Austin trivia, which adds to the experience. Then, the driver will head back towards Congress, overshoot it and turn around to get ready for the bats to emerge. The guides shine a red flashlight, which allows you to see the bats without bothering them. Depending on the night, you can either see a trickle of bats or a swarm. Although we saw what was more like a trickle, my son claimed to have seen many more bats than I was able to pick out of the skyline at dusk.
Shortly after the bats’ emergence, the boat brings you back to the dock and the tour is complete. The tour itself is about an hour, so in between parking, loading and unloading, it’s only a few hours, so pretty much perfect timing for kids.
The tour got three thumbs up from our family. I’d certainly consider taking a picnic down there, but I’m glad we opted for the boat tour the first time around. Seeing the bats was a really nice way to spend an evening and learn more about Austin’s favorite winged animal.
Have you taken your family to see the bats? If so, what was your experience like? Any suggestions to share?