Lady Bird Lake & Austin’s Urban Bat Colony

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To fully appreciate Austin’s downtown skyline, you’ll need to stick around until dusk.  The city center is located on the banks of Lady Bird Lake (the dammed-up water of the Colorado River).  The lake’s southern bank also provides a great place for a stroll, and after just a few minutes of walking here, you’ll get a feel for Austin’s character — young, energetic, and hip.

Austin’s tallest skyscrapers are all quite new.  The tallest of them, the Austonian, is 56 stories tall (683 feet/208 meters), is the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi River. It was completed in 2010.  Not far away, the 360 Condominiums held the tallest title for a while (the 563 foot tall structure was completed in 2008).  Third tallest is the Frost Bank Tower, noticeable for its brightly-lit, crystal-looking top.  It was the first skyscraper to begin construction following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

Jumping back about an hour, I found a parking spot along Riverside Drive, near the railroad overpass (not far from Lamar Avenue).  It was about a mile away from my ultimate destination, the bat colony underneath the Congress Avenue bridge, but I didn’t mind the walk.  Lady Bird Lake Trail provides a wide path for running and walking, on both sides of the lake.  I was there on a Sunday evening, along with plenty of Austiners, all taking advantage of the cloudy but comfortable March weather, as they and their dogs got some exercise (part of the trail is a leash-free zone).

Lady Bird Lake was originally known as Town Lake, but was renamed in 2007, after the death of Lady Bird Johnson.  The former First Lady served as honorary chair of the committee that engineered the Austin waterfront you see today — an effort that started in 1971.

After passing underneath the First Street Bridge, it’s just a short walk to Congress Street — the famous bat bridge you see in the picture above.  You’ll need to pass underneath the bridge…

… to get to the popular bat-viewing area on the far side.  This small hill has been prepared especially for the crowds of folks who like to show up nightly to watch countless thousands of those creepy winged creatures swarm out from their crevasses and into the Austin air.

And yes, it is a little frightening to walk directly under the bridge.  Smelly, too.  But chances are, you won’t have guano rain down on top of you, and it’s even less likely that a bat will get tangled in your hair (an old myth, which bat experts discount ).

They aren’t easy to photograph, but you can see a bunch of blurry bats in this photo.

As luck would have it, I was in town during the best bat-spotting time of the year.  During March and April, Mexican Free-tail Bats migrate north and settle underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge.  Many of them are pregnant females, who come here to have their babies.  They stick around through summer and into the fall, when it’s time to head south again.  Early evening is the best time to watch the bats take flight.  Since they are nocturnal, this is just the beginning of their day.

The Congress Avenue Bridge wasn’t always a home for bats.  Renovations to the bridge in 1980 created deep, narrow cracks on the bridge’s underside.  Bats find those cracks to be quite cozy, and once they started telling their friends, hundreds of thousands showed up (possibly as many as 1.5 million), making the bridge the largest urban bat colony in the world.

Truth be told, I don’t like bats.  I had a bad experience with them a long time ago, when they established a sizeable urban colony in my house.  I had to move out for a few days, while exterminators tore the place apart, finding the squeaky creatures in the attic, in the folds of the window drapes, even the cracks of the door jams.  After that, until I moved out a few years later, I could never walk into certain rooms without quickly scanning the ceiling for those flying mammals.  The Congress Avenue Bridge brought back many of those memories.  So I didn’t stick around for long.

Oh, and one more reason I quickly headed back to the car: I couldn’t find any public restrooms near the bat-viewing area, or anywhere else along the trail.  With so many people enjoying the area, it seems like a rather odd oversight.  So, be sure to plan ahead, and make a rest stop before heading out for a late-evening stroll along Lady Bird Lake.

I ended Day 2 with a drive from downtown Austin to my motel in Georgetown.  Not only was it cheaper than the accommodations in Austin, it also placed me closer to the start of Day 3’s route, which followed TX-29 to Llano, then headed south to Enchanted Rock State Park. 

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