I am only just beginning to explore locations where bats can easily be seen. It can be a rush to see a huge gathering of bats emerging from a cave or bridge at sunset.
Sacramento, California – Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. Approximately 200,000 Mexican free-tailed bats live under the Yolo Causeway under I-80 between Davis and Sacramento during the spring and summer (it is a maternity colony). The Yolo Basin Foundation has some outstanding bat programs where you attend a brief program at the Foundation offices before dark, then you go out to a prime viewing location so everyone can have a good look at the emerging bats.
Sierraville, California – Kentucky Mine Museum. This historic gold stamping mill also holds a colony of Townsend’s big-eared bats. These bats are usually very sensitive to human disturbance, but here, they have acclimated to people visiting the building during the day. You will usually see at least a few hanging from the ceiling and even flying around. Sometimes there can be big groups of them visible. Sierraville is in the mountains northwest of Truckee, California.
Austin, Texas – Congress Ave. Bridge. When the bridge was rebuilt in the 1980s, Mexican free-tailed bats adopted it as a maternity “cave.” At first, Austin residents were alarmed, but Merlin Tuttle and Bat Conservation International reassured them that this was an asset, not a liability. Today, the 2.5 million bat colony is the largest urban bat colony anywhere, and Austin has gone batty for bats! The bridge has become a local attraction where hundreds of people (thousands at times) gather every night from spring through summer to watch the emergence of the bats at dusk. Austin even has a bat festival every August.
San Antonio, Texas – Bracken Cave. This is known for its incredible flight of millions of bats as they emerge from the cave to feed at sunset. The colony of Mexican free-tailed bats here is the largest colony of bats in the world. The area is owned by Bat Conservation International. The organization opens the area for bat viewing on selected evenings in spring and summer. This is one location I have not been to yet, but plan to be there as soon as I can schedule a visit. More information can be found at the Bat Conservation International website.
Irvine, CA – San Joaquin Marsh, Sea and Sage Audubon Society. The local Audubon society has created a marvelous bat walk every week through the summer. It sells out quickly. Bat rehabilitator and researcher, Stephanie Remington, gives a talk about bats, then leads the group through the wetlands on wide and easily used trails. Britain has a lot of bat walks, but I have not been able to find many in the U.S.
Scottsboro, Alabama – Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge. This accessible location has a viewing platform in front of the cave where you might see 200,000 gray bats emerge to feed during the summer. It is easy to miss. It is 7 miles west of Scottsboro on the south side of Highway 72. This is a satellite refuge of Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decater. The headquarters of the refuge has a nice visitor center.
Chattanooga, Tennessee – Nickajack Cave Wildlife Refuge. This is a very accessible location not too far from Chattanooga. It is a maternity cave for over 100,000 gray bats. The cave is over water, and there is an easily reached overlook that lets you see the bats emerge at sunset to feed during the summer. Many people use a canoe or kayak from a nearby boat ramp to watch the emergence from the water.
Carlsbad, New Mexico – Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats (the park refers to them as Brazilian free-tailed bats because of their scientific name, though that name is rarely used elsewhere) live in the caves in spring and summer. Every night you can go to a ranger-led bat program and see the bats emerge from the caves. The park is a little overly restrictive about cameras, prohibiting their use, along with any other electronic device. While a mass of tourists madly photographing with flash might disturb the bats, today’s cameras allow superb images without flash in the low light of dusk, perfect for unobtrusive photos of the bats. Cameras are used (including flash) without any effect on bats at the major bat colonies in Texas, so hopefully the folks here will get the message. Having more people get excited about bats and want to photograph them is a key PR benefit for bats.
If you know some great bat viewing locations, please let me know below so I can add them!