It was 12:15 pm when my plane touched down at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. A jet-lagged stranger in a strange place, I wondered what Austin, TX might have in store for me. The answer, I soon found out, was a lot. With an urge to obtain some aerial photos of the city, I searched for parks in and around the downtown area and drove my rental car to Zilker Metropolitan Park. A simple park, with an open field, Zilker would do just fine for launching my drone without interruption and without disturbing the locals. As the small aircraft climbed above 100 feet, I watched the scene from the camera open up to expose a sun-drenched skyline behind a long and winding Colorado River. This view could not be appreciated through the window of an airplane or from the ground and as the drone climbed higher more of the beauty that makes Austin a popular destination became apparent.
Boats and Paddleboards on the River
Below the drone, I could see dozens of kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards drifting down the river, occupied by people relaxing with beverages and enjoying the cool water on a hot Texas summer afternoon. A couple approached me, curious about the controller in my hands, and engaged me in conversation. Like myself, they were day-tripping business travelers searching for hidden (and well known) gems among the many tourist attractions in Austin. “We’re going to go see the bats tonight.” the young woman said with strong enthusiasm, “Are you going to check them out?” Naturally, anytime someone brings up local wildlife in an urban setting it peaks my interest. The couple described a spot under the Congress Avenue Bridge where people gather nightly to watch large swarms of bats emerge from their slumber to feed, mate, and do whatever else bats do in the dark with the busy streets below. I certainly wouldn’t presume to know what all that entails, but I did make a plan to watch it happen… after plenty of coffee.
Coffee at the Native Hostel
Austin is well known to be an exceptionally progressive urban oasis in an otherwise very conservative state. College students blend well with professionals and artists in this haven of cultural and societal diversity, and few things bring them together like strong coffee in a relaxing shop. A quick internet search revealed several popular options, but the coffee bar at Native Hostel stood out the most. Immediately upon entering the building, I could see that I would not be disappointed. The lighting was soft and there were couches and comfortable chairs beyond the bar. I ordered my coffee and sat down behind my open laptop. Looking around the room, I could tell that I was not the only traveler taking a break from exploring the city to get some work done. The atmosphere felt occupied, but not too busy. Perfect for the limited amount of concentration I would need while editing the aerial photos that I had taken earlier. Spoons clanged against the inside of coffee cups while the many conversations taking place around me blended into one solid sound, adding to an ambiance that caused me to lose track of time. It was now 5:30 p.m. and I had a date with some bats.
Congress Avenue Bats
My limited research revealed an approximate time of 8:30 p.m. as optimal for observing the emergence of the winged rodents. I wasn’t going to risk them waking up early, so I left the hostel and headed out. Downtown Austin traffic was reasonably mild for 6 p.m. on a Saturday evening, but I could tell by the increasing number of vehicles and pedestrians that congestion was imminent. Fortunately, I avoided the worst of it and arrived quickly at the parking lot of the American-Statesman building. Aside from three other vehicles, the lot was relatively empty. I took a short walk to a small hill with a clear and unobstructed view of the underside of the Congress Avenue bridge. There were several people, some sitting on blankets and others setting up cameras on tripods. The sun was still bright, so I tried my best to get comfortable while we all waited with anticipation for dusk to flush out our furry friends. Over the next hour, the viewing area’s population exploded. Bystanders lined the railing, shoulder to shoulder, of the bridge above. The hill and the lawn surrounding it looked like a sold-out concert venue with people squeezed together and solicitors selling individual bottles of beer, water, and soda from rolling coolers. The Austin bats were more popular than I had anticipated.
The sun began to set at 8:30 and a few moments later the first little creatures fluttered out from under the bridge. Not enough to constitute a swarm at first, but within the next 20 minutes, the air directly above me was thick with bats swooping and diving around each other as they competed for the limited stock of airborne insects. The spectacle lasted until the sky was completely dark and I considered myself very fortunate to have walked away unblemished by guano.
A Safe and Scenic City at Night
It was 10 p.m., with a 7 a.m. flight scheduled the next day, when I decided to finish my Capitol City adventure with a stroll around the downtown area. Austin feels safe at night and the people that I passed along the sidewalks smiled and nodded in a way that invokes a small town feeling. The lights from the tall buildings reflected in the water as I walked along the river. I could smell food from the trucks lining up outside of the local bars along my path and music poured out into the street. My Austin initiation was brief, but as I approached my hotel I knew that I would return to experience more of what this wonderful city has to offer.