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Bats
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Going batty

Moving from the dark side to research subject to airy tourist attraction

Email|Print| Text size + By Keith O'Brien
Globe Correspondent / July 16, 2006

CONCAN, Texas -- Just down the road from Utopia, tucked away in the juniper hills 80 miles west of San Antonio, there is a gaping hole in the dusty earth filled with millions of sleeping bats.

This is the very definition of the middle of nowhere. Cell phone signals come and go. Gas stations are as probable as rain. Uvalde, the nearest big town, has just 16,000 people, and is a good 30-minute drive from here. This is what Texas used to be: a vast, hard landscape of absolutely nothing.

And yet, just before nightfall, people begin to pull up in cars and wait for Bain Walker to take them to the gaping hole known as Frio Cave. They are from Ohio and Michigan, Canada, and California. And they have come to see the bats.

``Here we are," Walker says after leading the people down a dirt road to the foot of the hill near Frio Cave. The sun is setting. Soon, as they do every night, millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats will emerge, flying only a few feet over the heads of the people who have gathered to watch them. And the people, for the most part, will not be afraid.

The bats will be close enough to be heard, to be felt fluttering on the air. And when it's over about an hour later, people won't be able to stop talking about what they saw. Bat emergences are nothing new. Those who have visited Austin may have witnessed a similar event at the Congress Avenue bridge . And the caves of central Texas have always made good homes for migrating bats.

But only in recent years have these caves started to attract tourists interested in seeing these storied animals. Once considered nuisances, these bats are now the subject of Boston University researchers. There is a growing appreciation of their ecological value and more and more people are going to places like Frio Cave.

Walker eyes tonight's visitors, then nods up the hill toward the cave. It's almost time.

``Go on up," he says.

Millions of Brazilian free-tailed bats -- creatures about the size of your thumb -- migrate to Texas every spring to mate and raise their young. The caves here are perfect for them. About 25 years ago, the bats discovered that some bridges were good habitats, too. People were not pleased. ``Mass fear in the air as bats invade Austin," screamed one newspaper headline, according to Bat Conservation International .

But the group, which moved to Austin in 1986 to educate people about bats, calmed those fears and turned curiosity into cash. By 1990, Austin was billing itself as the ``Bat Capital of America." Good publicity followed and tourists spent money to be near animals that before had scared them. One study conducted in 1999 estimated that bats injected some $8 million into the Austin economy. The bridge spectacle had become an event.

``People go to that and they're just awed," says Thomas Kunz , a Boston University biology professor who has been studying the Texas bats for several years. ``But I always try to say, `You've got to come out to some of these caves and you'd be awed even more.' I consider it a wonder of the world."

Initially, few people listened. At Frio Cave seven years ago, bat tours were sporadic, crowds thin. Then Walker, who grew up nearby, asked the land owner if he could take over the tour operation. He and his family began promoting the cave as an attraction. And while the crowds are still small -- as few as a dozen and as many as 80 people per night -- the curious have begun making the trip.

Attendance at Frio Cave has doubled in just the last two years, says Shelly Plante , nature tourism coordinator for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department . Visits are up 60 percent at another cave, Devil's Sinkhole , in Rocksprings . And at the Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area , another bat viewing site in Fredericksburg, west of Austin, tourists are increasing by about 1,000 people per year.

``Obviously, there's something happening," says Plante. ``Word is getting out that there are these wonderful sites, that there's this new thing you can do with your family and friends."

This summer, Plante is conducting a survey to determine how much money these visits are generating. Meanwhile, Kunz and a team of specialists have embarked on a study to examine the ecological impact of the Brazilian free-tailed bats, to put a dollar value on their worth, and even count them -- a painstaking process being conducted out of a Ford Explorer with Massachusetts license plates.

Jon Reichard , a graduate student at BU, is at the wheel of a beat-up Ford rumbling down a dirt road outside Johnson City. He is bound for the Selah , Bamberger Ranch Preserve, a sprawling 5,500-acre spread, with one particularly interesting attraction: a man-made cave built to attract bats.

J. David Bamberger, former chairman of Church's Fried Chicken, finished the cave in 1998 and quickly became a laughingstock. The bats didn't show up. Critics called it ``Bamberger's Folly." ``It got to be kind of a laughing matter," his wife, Margaret, admits.

But then, three years ago, about 200,000 bats came to the preserve, shocking everyone.

``All of a sudden -- bam! -- bats came out of there for 21 minutes," David Bamberger says. ``I had tears running down my face. . . . My God, I was vindicated."

The cave, which he dubbed The Chiroptorium (from chiroptera, the order of mammal to which bats belong) was no longer a folly, it was a destination and an example of just how far the bats had come. Here was a rich ranch owner encouraging bats on his land. Bamberger's cave became one of the many that BU researchers are studying.

There is no question, Kunz says, about the bats' value. The bats eat more than half their body weight in insects each night. That's roughly 2 million pounds of insects a night, researchers say, which means there are far fewer corn earworms and bollworms to feast on crops. Which, in turn, saves farmers millions of dollars in pesticides.

``In their absence, the population of insects would be overwhelming," says John Westbrook, a research meteorologist with the US Department of Agriculture. Just how overwhelming is something biologists are trying to determine. What is clear, says Kunz, is that the bats are more valuable than anyone would have thought in the 1980s. That's why Reichard squats outside Bamberger's cave one recent evening, fires up a computer armed with thermal imaging capabilities, and begins to count bats.

It does not go well. Reichard set up too close to the bats to get a good view and they flew too low to the ground, making it hard to pick up images. He'll have to come back tomorrow. But he's pleased by what he saw. The cave's population is way down from 2003, but there are still thousands here, evidenced, among other things, by the mound of bat guano inside the cave.

``Look," says Bamberger proudly, ``at that pile of poop."

Back at Frio Cave, people follow Walker to the top of the hill , then wait, cameras and binoculars in hand, for what has been promised: a whole mess of bats.

Ten minutes pass. Nothing. Ten more minutes. Still nothing. People begin to amuse themselves by tracking the red-tailed hawks on the horizon and asking Walker about bat guano. Ten more minutes pass. Then a woman shouts.

``Here they come!"

The bats emerge in waves, in columns. They fly from the cave as one, fluttering off over the hills to the east, just over the heads of the people who have paid $10 to be here and who now struggle to explain what they're seeing.

``Knowing this is here and seeing it is like the difference between knowing the Grand Canyon is there and actually seeing it," says Virginia Inman , who with her husband, Don, has witnessed caribou migrating and salmon spawning . But, they agree, nothing like this.

The bats simply keep coming and, flying together, they form a chorus. They sound like surf. They sound like rain. They spill from the mouth of Frio Cave, twisting off into the distance like columns of black smoke, and the people keep watching. They are unable to turn away from the bats, rising and falling, darting and diving, dodging the hawks and then, finally, disappearing into the night.

Contact Keith O'Brien, a freelance writer in Boston, at keith@keithob.com.

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