There are places that nearly every one dreams of going some day — the Great Pyramids of Egypt and the Eiffel Tower figure high on the list of sites that many would like to visit. For bat-lovers, the list is topped without any question by Bracken Cave.
Bracken Cave is unparalleled as the largest known congregation of bats anywhere in the world. A magnificent spectacle for all — and we can’t find it! Our anxiousness grows as the afternoon draws on and we are unable to interpret the simple map we have and find the turning that leads to the cave. We’ve searched for it everywhere on the GPS but it’s not there — like it or not, on this occasion this jewel of modern technology is of no help. Bracken Cave is the Mecca of bat-loves but does not appear on the maps since its custodians make sure with great efficiency that it is not over visible. Frankly, we didn’t expect that. Given the size and importance of the cave we expected well-lit signs on the motorway between Austin to San Antonio in southern Texas, which would take us to the doors of the cave itself. After a number of false starts, out of sheer desperation we stop at a petrol station that is in theory near the cave. The person has heard of the cave but can’t tell us where it is; the second knows where it is but says it’s difficult to get there because “they got it well hidden”. Nevertheless, his directions get us there in the end in time to see the show begin.
We join a group of thirty visitors that are allowed to approach the cave today. Mylea Bayless, Director of Conservation Programmes of Bat Conservation International (BCI) is waiting to show us around. The zeal with which the BCI protects this essential site is well justified due to the pressure from housing schemes and the fact that uncontrolled visits could negatively affect the bat colony. Since they bought the cave and the surrounding land the efforts of the BCI have centred on controlling and regulating visitor access and on improving the natural surroundings. Our impression is that they have managed to fulfil both objectives very successfully. Along with Mylea there is a small group of local volunteers who accompany us on the visit and help visitors. It’s 6 o’clock in the afternoon as we reach the cave. Visitors sit on wooden benches installed by the BCI that help remind us that we have come to see what is, after all, natural show. Each bench has a metal plaque with the name of the person who paid for it. Then, Don Bergquist, a BCI volunteer who is retired, makes a long introduction, both rigorous and humorous, to the world of bats, using his voice and a few photos as his main tools. He turns what promises to be a wonderful show into an educational spectacle as well. Whilst Don is talking the first bats begin to appear and the public’s attention turns towards the entrance to the cave.
The 10-metres-long entrance to the cave is in a small depression in the ground and through it around 15 million Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) leave every evening. They gain height in a dense frenetic spiral and fashion an impressive formation that snakes its way away towards the far horizon. The emergence can last up to 4 hours as not all bats can leave at once; thus it begins quite early, before the sun has even set. The sheer number of bats, the speed and the grace with which they fly in front of us, and the sound of their wings beating all captivate us for a while. We leave in the end when there is no more light left with which to see the many millions of bats still to leave their cave.
Once witnessed the magnitude of the spectacle, it is understandable that the BCI uses all its resources and volunteers it has to preserve this cave. The threat of a new housing project next to the land that harbours Bracken Cave has raised the alarm. Mylea explains that the buildings themselves will not directly affect the bats but will multiply exponentially the amount of contact between the bats and humans, which will have unforeseeable consequences for the cave and its occupants. The BCI has decided to avoid all conflict and Mylea is sure that the NGO will be able to raise the near 20 million dollars that it needs to buy the land and in this way prevent the building from going ahead. After having met them, we too are convinced that they will manage to raise the money.