If you are spending time in Fredericksburg, Texas – especially around this time of year with Halloween right around the corner – you must visit the Old Tunnel State Park. The abandoned train tunnel houses over 3 million….yes, I said million, Mexican free-tailed bats as well as 3 thousand Cave Myotis bats. From May to October, visitors can watch the nightly exodus and the ensuing counter-clockwise spiral to the sky around sunset.
Local residents have said that soon after the tracks were removed in 1942, bats took up residence in the tunnel. After living in Fredericksburg for over 10 years, I thought that it was finally time to visit the Old Tunnel State Park with the family.
If you plan on visiting, you really can’t wait too much longer to see these little guys because they migrate to Mexico in late October (hence their name), however the park is open 365 days a year for hiking, bird-watching and general wildlife viewing. The half-mile trail that leads down towards the tunnel opens at sunrise and it closes at various times based on sunset and the bat’s emergence.
Bats will begin to arrive back in the area around early March – first the females and juveniles and then the males arriving later. The Old Tunnel State Park is interesting because it is a nursery colony where each mother typically raises one pup. In order to nurse, the mothers have to find and identify their specific pup when they roost in densities between 400-500 per square foot! Talk about a lack of leg room!
The park offers three staged areas to view the bats. When you first arrive, there is an upper viewing platform. If you plan on staying at the top platform (which is covered), it is free. This is also where you would pay the park employees ( I believe it was $5 each person) if you plan on descending to the lower platform. At this initial level, there are several educational displays with bats, showing a size comparison as well as giving guests a better idea of their life.
Another interesting service that the park offers are multiple educational opportunities, including distance learning via Skype! So for those of you who have classrooms, email the park to arrange for a visit – or a Skype call.
The next viewing option is a mid-level graveled area that is right above the entrance to the tunnel. When we visited the park, we were able to make it this far with the stroller (granted it was an off-road stroller and still a very rough ride where we had to carry it down a couple of stairs). I would not recommend attempting to take a wheelchair on this route.
The final area is the lower viewing platform which can seat approximately 70 people. From the mid-level platform, visitors will have to descend several steps of crude stairs over rough terrain in order to arrive at the lower viewing area.
The lower viewing area and trail is closed Monday – Wednesday evenings from May – October. It does open to the public Thursday – Sunday evenings where park staff put on a great informational session on the bats.
Prior to the bats emerging, guests are encouraged to walk the trail and view the tunnel from the pathway. Once you make it down to the lower platform area, the trail is very easy to navigate. Our kids had a great time hopping and skipping around while looking at the different plants and bugs that they could find.
Before making your trip, be sure to call (866) 978-2287 to receive the latest emergence information. The recordings are updated based on the time of the year as well as the patterns observed in the recent days. I suggest arriving early enough to walk to the lower trail and bridge in order to look into the cave because the park staff will close the trails and usher all visitors back up to the lower platform level prior to the bats emerging.
I don’t know about you, but I would not want to be down on the bridge when 3 million bats come swirling out of there. I think that the bats are cute, but I can just picture them stuck in my hair frantically trying to get out….eeek! No thank you!
The Mexican Free-tailed bat is often called the guano bat for the sheer amount of guano produced by these colonies. Yes, you can smell the guano at the park (especially down on the bridge) but it isn’t as overwhelming as I thought it would be. Early this century, guano was actually Texas’ largest mineral export before oil! Really?…really?
This bat by-product was so valuable that caves near San Antonio were heavily guarded in World War II due to a Top Secret program trying to make bats carry incendiary bombs to drop on Japan. The program was hastily scrapped when the bat bombardiers set fire to the barracks. This is so crazy that I can’t even make it up! Anyway, I digress….
The park employees will round everyone up an hour or so before sunrise and have them sit down on bleachers on the lower platform where they will give a great informational session on the bats. It is also important to be sitting early because the juveniles make the colony a somewhat unpredictable occurrence – emergence times could vary more as they young ones are learning the ropes.
Once they start exiting the tunnel, you can feel a slight breeze as millions of little bats make the journey out to find some grub. The park guide let us know that this colony has an albino bat that we should be on the look out for. I was thinking, yeah right – what are the chances that we would see 1 albino bat out of approximately 3,003,000 bats! Well…we did see the albino and Liam was in the process of testing out the high speed continuous shooting on my D7000 which boasts a 6fps speed for up to 100 photos…of everything except the bats. So needless to say, we have no photos of the rare albino bat.
It’s funny because we thought that Liam, our 3.5 year old, would enjoy seeing all of the bats but it was really Addison, our 19 month old, who absolutely loved them!
Liam looked at the bats for a little while but really just liked jumping on and off the bleachers.
After watching the bats from the lower viewing platform, we decided to check out the view from the mid-level platform. Ok, let’s be honest…we were forced to change the scenery because the natives (ahem…the kids) were getting restless. Even after what must have been at least 20 minutes down at the bottom platform, the bats were still exiting the tunnel in such numbers it was amazing! This view below is from the mid-level platform directly above the tunnel.
This is the grand scale view from the upper level platform where you can see “swarms” of bats out in the Texas Hill Country (it almost looks just like smears in the picture).
These bats are out in search of water from several of the rivers in the area before they eat their weight (they tip the scales at a whopping 12 grams) in bugs for dinner and then return to the tunnel to sleep and then start the whole process over again the next day.
So come on out and spend an evening with our “spooky” friends outside of Fredericksburg!
Have you visited Old Tunnel State Park? Or possibly Bracken Cave, outside of San Antonio, which is home to the largest bat population in the world? Bracken has over 20 million bat residents! What did you think?