Tag Archives: bat show

“To the Bat Cave!”

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A year ago we had the opportunity to experience a once in a lifetime thrill when we attended the evening bat show at Carlsbad Caverns. I struggle to even describe the thrill it was to sit quietly in that stone amphitheater and watch as millions of bats exited the caverns over our heads. It was awe-inspiring.

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When we arrived in Fredericksburg, Texas we were told by the locals that before we left we needed to take the kids out to Old Tunnel State Park to see the nightly emergence of the bat colony that makes its home in the abandoned railroad tunnel located in the park.

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After our experience at Carlsbad Caverns there was no way we were going to miss the opportunity to witness this awesome show by Mother Nature a second time and we made plans to drive out to Old Tunnel State Park on Saturday night after the wedding.

Knowing that the bats typically emerge to feed just before sundown,  we made plans to arrive at the park by 8:00pm.

It was a beautiful drive through Texas hill country to get to the state park that was located 20 minutes away from downtown.

When we arrived the first clue that we had miscalculated the time was the wave of visitors leaving the park. It is never a good sign when you find yourself swimming upstream! It wasn’t until we made it over to the viewing pavilion and spoke with the park rangers, that our fears were confirmed.

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They explained that although the bats usually emerge closer to 9:00 pm, lately they have been exiting earlier and earlier. They explained that the drought in the area makes hunting for insects more challenging for the Mexican free-tail bats, which means they have been emerging earlier than usual to get in their food quota each night.

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We were disappointed to have missed the bats but stayed to enjoy the park with plans to return the following evening to catch the show.

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While there we enjoyed checking out the cacti:

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Catching up with family:

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And enjoying a spectacular Texas sunset.

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The next day we returned. We wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the bat show two days in a row so we arrived by 6:30 pm. And it is good that we did! Rather than the 7:25 emergence that occurred the night before, on Sunday they began making an appearance by 7:00 pm.

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Here is a little information about this special show, as taken from the state park’s website:

Watching a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats emerge is truly a special experience! During emergence, the bats spiral upwards in a counter-clockwise direction in order to gain altitude. Aerial predators, such as red-tailed hawks, are sometimes seen catching bats as they emerge, and terrestrial predators, such as raccoons, feed on fallen bats. The large, serpentine column of bats can travel as high as 10,000 feet and 60 miles, one-way, each night to feed on agricultural pests such as the corn earworm (a.k.a. cotton bollworm), cutworm, and webworm moths. Each bat can eat its weight in insects nightly, and the Old Tunnel colony may devour over 25 tons of moths per night!

There are two viewing options for the bat show:

Lower Viewing Area Tour

A close-up view of the emergence is one of the most unique experiences in nature. The flapping of millions of tiny wings is usually audible and often creates a light wind that can be felt by visitors in the lower viewing area. Lower viewing area tours are conducted Thursday through Sunday, May through October. An educational program is given about bats, with an emphasis on the fascinating life history of the Mexican free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis mexicana).

Seats are filled on a first-come, first-served basis with a maximum seating capacity of 70 visitors. Reservations are not accepted. The activity tour fee for the lower viewing area is $5 per person ages 4 and up. Due to the bat’s sensitivity to noise disturbance, children age 3 and under are not allowed at the lower viewing area.

Upper Viewing Area

The upper viewing area, located adjacent to the parking area, is open nightly for use by the general public. The scenic view from the upper viewing area allows visitors to experience the rugged beauty of the Texas Hill Country. Many bicyclists, motorcyclists, and car clubs stop at Old Tunnel to enjoy this view. Bats are best viewed from this area during August and September, when bat emergence times are earlier and more light is present. Fantastic views of red-tailed hawks feeding on emerging bats can also be seen from this area. No fees are charged.

(To protect and conserve the resources and for the safety of our visitors, they only allow 250 people at the upper viewing area. If they reach that limit they close off the parking lot next to the upper viewing area and will admit more visitors to the upper viewing area as people leave. )

 

We felt the upper viewing area was a better fit for our crew so we got settled and waited for the show to begin.

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Wow, what an experience! It was unreal watching those millions of bats flying out of the tunnel in a funnel of activity, soaring out of the trees into the skies above. Once again I found the experience affecting. There is something so humbling about watching the God’s greatness highlighted through nature’s displays of beauty.

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And it was so special sharing the experience with my family.

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What a awesome way to end our special weekend with the ones we love, in Fredericksburg, Texas!

Carlsbad Caverns

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Location: New Mexico

Established: May 14, 1930

Size: 46,766 acres

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“The Chihuahuan Desert, studded with spiky plants and lizards, offers little hint that what Will Rogers called the “Grand Canyon with a roof on it” waits underground. Yet, at this desert’s northern reaches, underneath the Guadalupe Mountains, lies one of the deepest, largest, and most ornate caverns ever found.

Water molded this underworld four to six million years ago. Some 250 million years ago, the region lay underneath the inland arm of an ancient sea. Near the shore grew a limestone reef. By the time the sea withdrew, the reef stood hundreds of feet high, later to be buried under thousands of feet of soil. Some 15 to 20 million years ago, the ground uplifted. Naturally occurring sulfuric acid seeped into cracks in the limestone, gradually enlarging them to form a honeycomb of chambers. Millions of years passed before the cave decoration began. Then, drop by drop, limestone-laden moisture built an extraordinary variety of glistening formations—some six stories tall; others tiny and delicate.

Cave scientists have explored more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) of passageways of the main cavern of Carlsbad, and investigation continues. Visitors may tour three of these miles (five kilometers) on a paved trail. Slaughter Canyon Cave provides the hardy an opportunity to play caver, albeit with a guide. The park has more than a hundred other caves open primarily to specialists.

Some visitors think the park’s most spectacular sight is the one seen at the cave’s mouth. More than a quarter million Brazilian (Mexican) free-tailed bats summer in a section of the cave, and around sunset they spiral up from the entrance to hunt for insects. The nightly exodus led to the discovery of the cave in modern times. Around the turn of the 20th century, miners began to excavate bat guano—a potent fertilizer—for shipment to the citrus groves of southern California. One of the guano miners, James Larkin White, became the first to explore and publicize the caverns beyond Bat Cave.”

This stop was one that we were all excited for.

We are “cave people,” and I mean that in the kindest way possible…not that we are Neanderthals in our actions and manners…

well, perhaps a little bit,

but what I really mean is that our family loves touring caves.

As a family we have toured a dozen caves and never turn down the chance to explore another underground labyrinth.

Last year we had the opportunity to tour Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, the longest cave system in the world.

When we were planning our cross country trip and realized how close we would be traveling to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, we knew we needed to add this stop to our itinerary. This stop had two added benefits:

#1: We were within three hours of my brother, Travis, who lives in Midland, Texas. So we planned to combine our visit to Carlsbad with a visit with Travis.

#2: It was free to visit and take Travis with us on a cave tour with our America the Beautiful pass.

We arrived in the area on Sunday night. The plan was to meet up with Travis on Monday morning, but we drove over to Carlsbad Caverns the night before so we could catch their evening bat show. This show is a must-see event if you visit the caverns. This show that you watch at the mouth of the cave is just as spectacular as anything you will see below ground.

We arrived at 6:15 and found a seat in the open amphitheater that faces the bat cave entrance.

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There we were instructed to turn off all electronics; including phones and cameras. No photography was allowed at the bat show as the lights put out by our cameras and phones can disorientate the bats in their flight and cause them to crash into vegetation.

We were also asked to sit still and quietly as we waited for the bats to emerge.

As we waited, a ranger spoke about the bats at Carlsbad Cavern, in the most interesting ranger led program we have attended on our trip. We learned that the colony of bats found at Carlsbad Caverns are Brazilian free-tail bats.

This colony is composed of 1/2 million bats, which was an incredible site to see when they began emerging from the cave, but we discovered that today’s colony of bats was a small percentage of the colony that was found there in the 1930’s. That same colony used to be  8-9 million strong.

The primary cause of the shrinking of the colony can be traced to the use of DDT in the 1970s.

Carlsbad Caverns is considered a maternity roost where the colony comes to give birth and raise pups each spring. These bats typically give birth to one pup every June or July. The pups are raised in the cave until the are old enough to join their mothers on their nightly flights beginning in September.

In October they leave Carlsbad Caverns for the winter, choosing to migrate to Mexico each year rather than hibernate like some other bat colonies do.

Around 6:45 pm the bats began to fly, beginning their flight pattern by flying in a vortex, creating a tornado of bats as they worked their way from the bottom of the cave up to the entrance.

The ranger explained that this movement is much like L.A. traffic and by flying in a spinning vortex bats are able to merge into “traffic” allowing 500,000 bats to exit the cave in a orderly way.

It was an unreal site to see 1/2 million bats leave the cave in search of the 4,500 pounds of insects the colony eats nightly in the 20 mile radius around the cave.

As the crowd sat in complete silence under a wave of passing bats, the experience was almost spiritual.

(Images taken from NPS website)

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I don’t know when I have experienced something so affecting.

The only sound was the whoosh of air as they flew above our heads and moved in a dance of dips and spins.

It was one of the neatest experiences of my life.

The next morning we returned to Carlsbad Caverns to meet my brother, Travis, for the day. Since he moved to Texas, visits with Travis are a rare and treasured treat. We decided to make this his belated birthday celebration since last week was his birthday.

He arrived and the kids ran over to greet him.

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Toby picked up our tickets for the tour and we began our visit in the visitor’s center, where we were able to learn a bit more about the formation of the cave, the history of the cave, and the bats that occupy the cave.

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From there we moved to the elevators that would take us deep within the Caverns.

There were multiple cavern tours available from self-guided, walk through tours  to more adventurous, ranger-led tours.

We opted for the Big Room tour:

“The basic tour through Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room route, a one-mile, self-guided underground walk around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave, the Big Room. Taking approximately 1.5 hours, this circular route passes many large and famous features including Bottomless Pit, Giant Dome, Rock of Ages, and Painted Grotto. Highly decorated and immense, the Big Room should be seen by all park visitors.

Access to the Big Room is provided by elevators located in the visitor center.

Just how BIG is the Big Room? At about 8.2 acres in size, roughly 6.2 football fields would fit into the Big Room!

It is definitely well-named as this is the largest single cave chamber by volume in North America.

Other caves might be longer or deeper, but few can live up to the grandeur of the Big Room of Carlsbad Caverns”

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We took the elevator down 750 feet into the heart of the cavern,  which was equivalent to over 70 stories of descent and took about a minute to go down. Rangers operate them with a pre-orientation.

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The first thing that greeted us below was the cafe and store carved under the rocks. It was pretty amazing how they were able to carve out a small underground center here.

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The other thing we noticed upon stepping out of the elevator was the temperature, which remains a steady 56 degrees year round inside the cave.

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The trail around the Big Room was incredible. Pictures didn’t prepare us for the vast size and incredible beauty.

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We have toured many caves, with some prettier than others, but I have never visited a cave more beautiful than Carlsbad Caverns.

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I’ve often said there’s no comparison with pictures and seeing things in person. In this instance, our pictures don’t even begin to capture the beauty and size of these formations.

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These decorations were all spectacular sights. We saw the Stalagmites growing from the ground and created by water falling on the floor.

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Water dripping slowly from the ceiling created the Stalactites hanging down. The thinner, hollow ones are called Soda Straws.

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When stalagmites and stalactites grow and meet together, they create these massive formations called Columns.

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Sometimes, water gathers in the cave and form Cave Pools. This one was clear and made for some wonderful reflections.

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Their imagination ran wild picturing what some of the formations looked like. Some actually had names like this one called Lion’s Tail.

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It was an amazing experience and it was fun to be able to share it with Travis.

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After our 1.5 hour walk around the Big Room we stopped at the underground cafeteria for Travis’ birthday lunch.

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Where else in the world can you say you had your birthday lunch 750 feet below ground.

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“The Underground Lunchroom came into existence in 1928, two years before the cave became a national park. At that time there was a desperate need for food and drink for tourists who were exhausted by the six hours walk required to get in and out of the cavern’s Big Room. The hike had such a reputation for making visitors hungry that the last few hundred yards were known as ”appetite hill.”

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The Underground Lunchroom serves small meals such as sandwiches, salads, yogurt, parfaits, and other food that does not involve cooking in the caverns, so as to protect the delicate cave environment, although in the early years of its operation there were no prohibition on cooking. Visitors can still  eat at a personal lantern lit table.

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One of the most popular activities for visitors is to write and send postcards from underground. There is a mailbox in the caverns, and you can stamp your postcard “Mailed from 750 feet below ground.”

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We had a few postcards to mail out and sent them from this underground post office.

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Then we took the elevators up to the surface where we headed back to the bus to give Travis a tour of our home on wheels.

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There we gave him his birthday gift: a Carlsbad Caverns t-shirt and hat to remember his birthday visit to the caverns.

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Travis also gave Tyler his birthday gift: a really cool mega squirt gun, that Tyler was thrilled with!

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All too soon it was time to say our goodbyes. It wasn’t a lot of time, but we were thrilled to carve out some special one on one time with my Texan brother. It was a visit we will never forget!