Primordial Houston

Waught's Up

A first trip to the Waugh Drive bat colony.

By Nick Panzarella September 24, 2013

Photo by Flickr user Norm Lanier

A guest from out of state was visiting recently, and during a pause between copious eating and drinking bouts, we found ourselves looking for something else, something quintessentially Houstonian to do. Having long heard of but never seen the Waugh Drive Mexican free-tailed bat colony in action, I decided that then was the perfect time to commit to seeing some local wildlife.

I imagined we would be the only ones there and that parking along Memorial would be a hassle. Wrong on both counts: We found a nearby spot with little troubled and we joined a steady trickle of Houstonians to the Waugh bridge. I felt vindicated in the eyes of my guest, as if this bat thing was something that we Texans communally "do", and not some grasping attempt at amusement.

As the sky darkened over Buffalo Bayou, we passed the Wortham Memorial Fountain and the small children soaking in its spray. The Waugh Drive bridge was lined with observers, and the patch of grass on the bayou’s southern bank was filled with young families, groups of college students, and couples on dates. The grass is newly laid and replete with rocks, but the ominous trees pulsing with the rickety rhapsody of cicadas nearby bring the scene an anticipatory energy.

Despite the observation deck and a couple of signs with information about the colony, the area lacks the feeling of permanence of the Austin’s more famous Congress Avenue batwatch spot. However, these urban bat colonies are accidents, the viewing areas developing after the fact in places that are typically abandoned. I can see Waugh Drive becoming a more desirable destination as beautification continues on the greenways along Buffalo Bayou.

My musing was interrupted at around 8:15 PM. As if by prearranged signal, the more experienced onlookers stood to attention en masse. After a few more moments’ anticipation, a solitary dark and winged critter fluttered out from under the bridge and beyond the trees along the banks of the bayou. And then another, and another, and suddenly a continuous stream of black bats were pouring out from under the concrete bridge. The great mass of them sped straight along the bayou for a short stretch, then veered into the trees and took flight high into the city air, heading for the American General Center. The stream continued in bursts, as the animals snaked around the sides of skyscrapers and out into the mosquito-fertile metropolis.

This preternatural aerial parade continued for about ten minutes, amazing us with the sheer numbers of the creatures that inhabited the structure. (300,000 by the most recent estimate, though the population waxes and wanes through the year. Some migrate south in the winter, but unlike in Austin, some stay in our colony all 12 months.)

Photo by Flickr user Timothy Faust

As the last flying stragglers zig-zagged off into the night, friendly conversations struck up among the various groups of visitors. It was an interesting sight: people gathered along the bayou as the sun set and winged mammals filled the sky. It made me wish that public drinking were legal. A little lubrication could transform this into a true destination, not just a 30-minute once-every-couple-of years stop. It's not often that people congregate here in scenarios lacking a ticket or cover charge, and it's perhaps rarer still in Houston that one can enjoy a scene of natural beauty with friends.            

Let’s hope the bayou improvements preserve and enhance this local treasure; perhaps it could even become a daily or regular gathering spot rather than a one-off visit and/or a place to take out-of-towners between feasts and binges. We long for the day when will be able to drink freely on the banks of the bayou with friends new and old beneath our Houston-proud cloud of  300,000 Mexican free-tailed bats. 

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