Guest article by Dana Sayre
More than 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the Anne W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, making ours the largest urban bat colony in North America. The bats migrate to Austin from Mexico each spring, and tourists and Austinites alike flock to the bridge at dusk to view their nightly flights into the sky above Lady Bird Lake.
Over a decade ago, Bat Fest creator French Smith noted how big a part of Austin’s identity the bats had become, and saw the opportunity to create a festival which would celebrate their importance to the city. Smith’s idea became Bat Fest, drawing an average of 15,000 attendees annually and celebrating its 11th year in Austin.
In addition to highlighting the flight of the bats, Bat Fest features three live music stages, over 75 arts and crafts vendors, food, drinks, bat activities for the whole family and a costume contest complete with an $100 prize for both adult and child winners.
This year, the main stage has been moved to the Austin American Statesman parking lot to accommodate even more attendees. Bat Fest strives to ensure that most of the vendors and almost all of the bands are local to Austin, further highlighting what is unique in our city.
Smith said Bat Fest brings over $4 million to the City of Austin each year, as well as drawing a significant amount of tourism. “We also donate a portion of the proceeds to Bat Conservation each year to make sure our bats are protected.” Smith shared his hope that Bat Fest draws awareness to the importance of the bats to Austin. Bat Conservation will have a booth on the bridge if attendees would like to support and celebrate the preservation of Austin’s bat population, or learn more about it.
Bat Conservation notes that the free-tailed bat population saves Texas farmers upwards of $3.7 billion annually in reduced crop damage and pesticide use by eating tons of corn earworm moths each year. In addition to consuming vast quanitites of a variety of insects, bats often pollinate plants valuable to tropical and desert ecosystems. In this way, Austin’s bats are more than just a novelty attraction. While bats are a threatened and endangered species worldwide, spaces like the Congress Avenue Bridge offer an important habitat to keep their population strong.
This year, Bat Fest begins at 4 PM on Saturday, August 22, 2015. Admission is $15 cash at the gate, but children under 8 get in free with an adult present. VIP tickets can be purchased for $150, including access to the main stage, private restrooms, VIP parking and a private cash bar.
The bats are expected to begin their flight around 7:30 PM, but could fly any time between 7-8:45 PM. The flight can take anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour. Speaking to Bat Fest’s importance, Smith explained, “The event offers more than just music. You get the opportunity to take a break from the entertainment and view the bats directly above their home for the one day of the year that [the City of Austin] closes the bridge.” Even those who have witnessed the bats’ flight in the past won’t want to miss this chance to view them up close and personal from the bridge itself.
You can find more information about Bat Fest 2015, including the full festival schedule, free and paid parking locations, and a music video by each band playing the event, here.
@theAustinot wants to know:
Have you ever attended Bat Fest in Austin?
Dana Sayre is a freelance writer and Austinite. More of her writing, focused on issues of gender, sexuality, mental health and social justice, can be found on her website.