Bats, Wolves and Spiders in Natural Habitats

On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on October 21, 2010
creepy-tarantula-celebration The tarantula is celebrated each October in Coarsegold, Calif.

“Hear that?” exclaims a wide-eyed Lucas Miller, 8, waiting expectantly at dusk for signs of bats taking flight near the Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas.

His big brother gives an upside-down nod. “Yep, they’re talking to us,” says Benjamin, 11.

With the largest urban bat colony in North America chattering behind them, the boys hang batlike from an oak tree on a nearby grassy spot. Thousands of lively squeaks drift from beneath the bridge, while hundreds of people await the emergence of more than a million Mexican free-tailed bats.

“The bats make me feel kinda creeped out,” says Benjamin, who lives in Austin. “But I like feeling that way, so this is great.”

Going batty in Texas
Like Benjamin and Lucas, about 100,000 spectators visit the downtown bridge each year to witness a swarm of bats skim across Lady Bird Lake in search of insects for their supper. And though each bat can fit into the palm of your hand and weighs only as much as two 25-cent coins, they consume an average of 20,000 pounds of bugs every night, according to Susan Kwasniak, 45, spokeswoman for Austin-based Bat Conservation International.

The natural spectacle begins each spring when mostly female bats arrive from Mexico to roost and give birth in early June, and ends in early November when most of the bats return to Mexico for the winter. The flights peak in August when baby bats, called pups, join their parents in nighttime forages for food.

Bats have lived beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge for years, but the colony’s population skyrocketed during the 1980s after a bridge reconstruction project left behind crevices in the concrete joints that created ideal roosting spots. While the burgeoning bat population initially concerned Austin residents, the city came to embrace the misunderstood mammals, which actually are quite gentle-natured—as long as people do not handle them.

Today, the bat flight inspires a festive atmosphere at the bridge each evening from spring through fall, drawing tourists, downtown workers, and families who bring lawn chairs and blankets to picnic on a nearby lawn. Some bat watchers gather along the rail atop the bridge, silhouetted against the setting sun. Others bob in boats and kayaks on the lake below, under the concrete arches. They wait . . . and wait.

“When are they coming?” ask Finn and Beck Medford, ages 11 and 6, respectively, during an evening outing at the bridge with their parents. “That’s the thing about nature,” answers mom Jenny Medford, 41, of Austin. “You can’t plan it. Sometimes that’s what makes it more special.”

Within minutes, a stream of tiny dark shapes emerges from below the bridge, swooping dramatically over the lake—a departure that can take two hours on some evenings.

The phenomenon makes Austin’s bat flight one of the most unusual and accessible wildlife-related attractions in the nation. But numerous other habitats feature other so-called creepy wildlife—from wolves and spiders to toads and snakes. The National Wildlife Federation, America’s largest conservation organization, promotes such nature-tourism destinations as a platform to dispel myths that haunt many creatures.

“Despite their strangeness, these animals are very beneficial and really not so scary at all if we just take the time to get to know them better,” says Carey Stanton, the federation’s senior director of education.

Howling in North Carolina
Howling is a hoot at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manteo, N.C. (pop. 1,052), especially when one of the dozens of red wolves that live in the wetland preserve howls back.

The 152,000-acre sanctuary has been home to a small but growing population of red wolves since 1987, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released four pairs of the endangered species there after breeding them in captivity. The effort marked the first successful reintroduction of red wolves since the species, which once roamed across the southeastern United States, became endangered in 1973 due to predator control programs and loss of habitat.

Today, more than 130 red wolves in 29 packs inhabit parts of northeastern North Carolina as the world’s only wild population of red wolves, according to the Red Wolf Coalition, a conservation and educational organization based in Columbia, N.C.

Red wolves, which live for about seven years in the wild, are named for the cinnamon-color fur behind their ears and along their neck and legs. Averaging 4 feet long, including their bushy tail, and weighing about 60 pounds, the wild canines are smaller than gray wolves but larger than coyotes. And, as fierce as the sharp-toothed carnivores may seem, they prey on rodents and other small mammals—not people.

Adventurers can hear the wolves’ harmonious howls during guided “howling safari” tours. Setting out on foot with flashlights in hand, explorers get a brief education on red wolves and the fine art of howling from Kim Wheeler, 49, the coalition’s executive director, who offers her own wolflike bay to get the animals started.

“Howling is a form of communication, and the truth is that I’m not really communicating anything in particular to them,” Wheeler says. “But when they howl back, they are communicating to me to let me know I’m in their territory, whatever I am.”

Creeping in California
Gold fever lured fortune hunters to Coarsegold, Calif., during the 19th century, but thanks to a town that honors its crawling residents, tarantulas are an even bigger attraction today.

Each year on the Saturday before Halloween, the Sierra Foothills community hosts the Coarsegold Tarantula Awareness Festival to celebrate the spider’s October to November mating season, which peaks on Halloween. During this time, hundreds of normally nocturnal males become daytime nomads, facing the dangers of automobile traffic, dogs, brooms and other hazards, while the females wait in their burrows for their hairy princes to arrive.

While it’s not against the law to kill the black and brown, doughnut-size spiders, local residents frown on the practice that led Diane Boland, 61, to start the festival in 1997 to atone for crushing one with her car. Rather than focusing on the spiders’ stinging bite, townsfolk prefer to pay tribute to their eight-legged friends for gobbling up cockroaches and other disease-carrying insects.

Tarantulas don’t spin webs, relying instead on ground vibrations to find food. What happens next is the stuff of horror movies. “Tarantulas don’t have chewing mouthparts, so what they do is inject the venom with their fangs and then take up the prey’s juices once the venom has turned its internal organs to liquid,” explains Walt Bentley, 63, an entomologist at the University of California’s Kearney Agricultural Center.

Nothing gets that gruesome, however, at the festival, which features a hairy-legs contest, tarantula races and an arachnid petting zoo. “It’s a chance to have a lot of wild, wacky fun while at the same time celebrating how important the tarantulas are for the environment,” Boland says.