The Nature Conservancy of Texas recently opened its Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve in the Texas Hill Country to allow families to experience the spectacle of evening bat emergences. The preserve is open to the public each summer and early fall, when more than 1.5 million female Mexican free-tailed bats come to the cave to give birth and raise their bat pups.
During the summer “bat season,” the public is invited to visit the preserve between mid-May and early October to see bats emerge by the thousands and learn about the bats’ roles in the environment, including the benefits they provide for agriculture in Texas.
The Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve is open from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday from mid-May to early October. Admission costs $5 for visitors age 6 and older. Since the time of the emergence varies slightly and the preserve is subject to closure from weather events, visitors are asked to call (325) 347-5970 before their arrival.
Directions: From the southeast side of the Mason town square, follow Highway 87 South about 1 mile to FM 1723 and turn right. After 4.8 miles, turn right on FM 2389. Cross two bridges over the Llano River and turn right on James River Road. Watch for deer and cattle on the road.The pavement ends, but continue on the James River Road past the paved turnoff to the right. Cross the James River at the ford and drive about a half-mile to a sharp left turn. The gated entrance to the Bat Cave Preserve is on the right at this curve. Follow the road to the parking lot.
The Nature Conservancy’s Own Bat Woman
Vicki Ritter, a longtime resident of the Hill Country town of Mason, is beginning her fourth year as The Nature Conservancy’s bat cave steward. Ritter, who oversees the preserve and provides interpretation of the bats’ natural history to visitors, describes the nightly emergence of the bats as “an astonishing phenomenon of nature.”
“About an hour or two before sunset, you can hear and see hundreds of bats fluttering and chirping just inside the cave,” she said. “Gradually, they come out to fly in a circle just outside the mouth of the cave, and eventually they move up into the sky in a spiral reaching several hundred feet in the air, like a huge bat ‘tornado.’ Finally, the bats start breaking off into columns and move across the countryside. This can last for two hours or more.”
Ritter takes care to point out that Mexican (also called Brazilian) free-tailed bats and other bat species provide benefits to humans beyond an awesome spectacle. They are major consumers of flying insect pests – scientists estimate this species eats 6,000 to 18,000 metric tons of insects annually in Texas – providing significant assistance to agriculture.
She cites a study published in 2006 in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that focused on an eight-county region of South Texas near Uvalde, showing that Mexican free-tailed bats protect corn, cotton and other crops against insect infestation. Researchers for the study reported the value of pest suppression provided by the bats is close to $1.7 million each year in the region studied, reflecting the value of crops that otherwise would have been lost to insects and dollars saved by farmers through decreased use of pesticides.
Fortunately, Ritter said, Mexican free-tailed bats do not appear to be affected by a mysterious, recent disease known as white-nose syndrome, which was first reported in New York in 2006. Since then, the disease has devastated bat populations in at least five New England states and has spread as far south as Virginia. The cause of this disease – characterized by a white fungus seen around the nose, ears and wings of bats – is yet unknown. The Nature Conservancy has partnered with other researchers in a massive effort to discover the cause and spread of the disease.
Vicki Ritter’s role as interpreter and caretaker of the cave is also one of family tradition; her daughter, Melissa Ritter, served as the Conservancy’s bat cave steward for three summers before her mother took over the role. An unrepentant fan of bats – particularly the Mexican free-tailed bat, known to scientists as Tadarida brasiliensis – Ritter jokingly calls herself “the bat granny.” Fittingly, she is accompanied on most of her visits to the cave by her 11-year-old grandson.
Ritter is eager to dispel myths about bats being vampires (only a few rare species drink animal blood), getting caught in people’s hair (their use of echolocation to move around is very precise) or carrying rabies (the incidence of rabies in bats is very low). Nevertheless, she underscores the need for people to recognize that bats are wild animals and should not be handled or interfered with.
Experiencing the evening emergence of bats from their cave also provides families with entertainment in an outdoor, natural setting, she said. In July, when the bat pups begin to emerge with their mothers, they can be identified by their awkward attempts at flight amid the other bats. Around the mouth of the cave and in the skies above it, predators of bats, including hawks, owls, raccoons and non-poisonous coachwhip snakes, are frequently sighted.
In 1990, Richard Phillip Eckert and Virginia Eckert Garrett donated to the Conservancy the 8-acre preserve, located next to the James River, in honor of their father, Lee Eckert, and grandfather, W. Phillip Eckert. Through generations, the family conserved the cave and allowed members of the community to experience nightly bat emergences. When they donated the property to the Conservancy, their sole condition was that the land around the cave remain open to the public for enjoyment and education, as it had been for more than 100 years.
The Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve is supported by partners including the San Antonio Area Foundation, which has been a proponent for conservation in Texas since 1987.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.