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Bat Watching: Bracken Cave’s Success Story

Whale watching, sure. Bird watching, of course. But bat watching? Who’s heard of such a thing?

As one of the world’s most misunderstood creatures, bats wrongfully get a bad rap. Now more than ever, bats are under threat from habitat destruction and the effects of climate change. This is where bat watching can create beneficial solutions in saving species. When done properly, ethical wildlife travels can help to conserve habitats and support biodiversity. One batty example of this is the tourism craze taking flight in the ‘Lone Star State’ of Texas.  

Millions of Mexican free-tailed bats in flight.
Mexican free-tailed bats in flight.

Bracken Cave Preserve

Hidden in the scrubby terrain of Texas Hill Country lies a plot of land, 3,462 acres to be exact, entirely devoted to protecting the world’s largest known bat nursery! Each summer Bracken Cave swells to capacity with nearly 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats. That’s nearly three times the number of people that live in New York City! But with an adult length of only 12 inches spread from wing to wing, these little bats really pack into their cavernous home.

Bracken Cave produces millions of bat pups each year. Beginning in March and April, pregnant females return from their winter homes in Mexico, Central and South America. By June, these females will have given birth to their single pup, which nearly doubles the cave’s population. Hence the title – largest known bat maternity colony in the world! For Mexican free-tailed bats, their motto is the more the merrier, packing in millions of warm bat bodies perfectly heats the cave to keep growing pups safe. Researchers have even recorded clusters of bat pups packed in at 400 individuals per square foot. With this many pups surrounding one another Bracken Cave acts like a giant incubator nursery.

This wildlife splendor is fiercely guarded by Bat Conservation International, a non-profit dedicated to preventing the extinction of the world’s rarest and most vulnerable bats and their habitats. Bat Conservation International jointly owns and manages this wildlife preserve with the Nature Conservancy. Over 3,000 acres of habitat have been set aside from human encroachment, ensuring disturbances like artificial lighting remain far away from the cave. Protecting the nearly 20 million bats is their top priority, but with this preservation comes the benefit of connecting wildlife enthusiasts with world-class bat watching opportunities!

Bracken Cave's main entrance and exit for the bats
The main opening into Bracken Cave.

World-class bat watching

Most Texans likely haven’t heard of Bracken, though it’s just 20 miles east of San Antonio. Down a nearly unmarked gravel driveway, lies the gaping 60-foot-wide cave mouth, resting at the bottom of a steep cactus-covered hill. This preserve is not open to the public like national parks or wildlife refuges. Instead, all visitors must make reservations in advance. Most of the seasonal bat flights are reserved for Bat Conservation International members, but there are select dates available for the general public to register. Seeing millions of bats take flight at dusk is a spectacular sight and one that is rightfully controlled and monitored to limit disturbances to the maternity colony.

The sheer number of bats flying together all at once creates what many refer to as a ‘bat-nado’ – flying in unison in a circle enables the tiny bats to gain altitude and fly south for an evening filled with hunting.

“Nearly four years later and I still get goosebumps thinking about Bracken Cave,” says Milo Putnam, founder of Laro – Ethical Wildlife Travels. “The emergence of 20 million bats, is a full-body experience. You can feel the breeze from their flapping wings. Hear their meek calls to one another. Even smell the faint hint of fresh guano from the cave.”

Bat biologists recommend visiting Bracken in July or August. Not only are the days longer and offer more time to observe the bats, but the pups that were born in June have already begun to fly. These adolescents take to the sky with their mothers, increasing the size of the ‘bat-nado’ by twofold.

Before their flighted appearance, an expert naturalist will share important information about the maternity colony and go over viewing guidelines to ensure the bats are respected. Mexican free-tailed bats might be the fastest bat species on earth, but when nearly 20 million of them try to exit one cave entrance at once, the entire process usually takes hours. Anticipate staying for about 3 hours in awe of the millions of mammals flying overhead.

“The bat-nado kept on going and going,” says Putnam. “I was in awe for the entire three hours as a river of millions of bats flew from the cave nearly turning the entire horizon gray.”

'BATS ONLY BEYOND THIS POINT' sign to remind Bracken Cave visitors where to observe ethically.
‘Bats Only’ sign to remind visitors where to observe ethically.

Beneficial bats

Batty enthusiasts know Bracken Cave for its conservation success. While others know Bracken Cave as ground zero for America’s most economically valuable bat colony. Mexican free-tailed bats consume a tremendous number of insects nightly. Researchers have discovered that bats will travel great distances to hunt the night sky, sometimes 60 miles away from the cave, for a roundtrip of over 100 miles in a single night!

This colony consumes millions of pounds of insects every evening, many of which are considered agricultural pests. By feeding on species like migrating cotton bollworm moths and army cutworm moths, these bats help save farmers billions of dollars. Scientists estimate that insect-eating bats help save the agricultural industry about $23 billion each year by lowering crop damage and reducing the need for harmful pesticides. In turn, this helps farmers produce more foods like corn, watermelons, artichokes, and even Texas pecans. And naturally, the bats benefit from full stomachs.

Bracken Cave visitors watching the bats fly
Visitors watching the ‘bat-nado’ at Bracken Cave Preserve.

Seeing Bracken Cave yourself

The key to Bracken’s success is Bat Conservation International’s restrictive management practices. Between member only bat flights and select evenings open to the public, this experience is coveted among wildlife watchers. At the time of writing, April 2022, members supporting with a $45 annual membership may bring up to 3 guests during their reserved bat flight. Members supporting monthly, or with a $60 or more annual membership may bring up to 5 guests during their scheduled bat flight.  

Members are able to attend one bat flight at Bracken Cave Preserve during the bat flight season, between mid-May till mid-September each year. Note that demand is high for these visits, and they do not guarantee a visit to every member due to extreme popularity. Reservations typically open in March, so plan accordingly.  

Mexican free-tailed bats flying above Bracken Cave into the night sky.
Mexican free-tailed bats fill the sky as they leave Bracken Cave Preserve.

Ethical bat watching tips

1.) Give them plenty of space and view their flight from a safe distance. Bats are great at flying, but collisions are possible. To prevent interfering with their flight, give them room to fly.

2.) Never touch a bat. Sometimes young or sick bats can struggle to fly at times. If a bat lands on the ground near an onlooker, do not touch it. For your safety and the bat’s safety, it’s best to leave them alone and notify a professional if they do not rebound and take flight.

3.) Avoid using flashlights or flash photography. Bats have incredibly sensitive senses. So ethical bat watching involves quiet observation and allowing your eyes to adjust as the sky darkens into night.

Bat Conservation International has created one of the most ethical and sustainable wildlife viewing opportunities in the world. Observing this awe-inspiring congregation of bats acts as a catalyst to teach people about the ecological and economic roles bats play globally.

“Witnessing this spectacle of nature should be on every wildlife lover’s bucket list,” says Putnam. “Viewing millions of flapping bats creating shifting shapes and spirals of movement that danced into the evening sky will remain an unforgettable scene of my lifetime.”

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