Yesterday wasn’t a perfect day. Nothing absolutely awful happened but it just didn’t work out that well. But today ended on a very high note.
Yesterday I drove through New Mexico and Texas to get to a National Park of which I had heard many years ago – Carlsbad Caverns. Here I hoped to see an abundance of wildlife that might recall that of the passenger pigeon.
The drive through the desert was long but enjoyable. Whenever my brain was saying ‘ just another bit of desert, then’ I told it to snap out of it as we don’t have much desert in east Northants and that’s where I’ll be in a couple of days – so let’s make the most of it.
Some of the desert was very deserty – dry, hot and with impressive mountains framing the desert landscape too.
I arrived at Carlsbad Caverns and drove up to the visitor centre where there were lots of cars (about half the license plates of the USA were represented – but not Rhode Island).
I could have gone down the caverns but I didn’t – instead I asked the nice man about the bat flight programme. He explained that it was free, where to goand when to arrive. Then, rather sheepishly he said that they didn’t have that many bats this year – hundreds or thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.
That’s a shame – I th0ught. I had been banking on, and looking forward to, around half a million Mexican free-tailed bats streaming out of their caverns like a plume of smoke. That’s what I had promised myself.
Oh. Oh well.
I drove back down the road and booked into the only motel in town which I thought was a bit expensive at $100 (inc tax) but the man said it was normal for round here. When I raised a quizzical eyebrow at the mention of ’round here’ (since there wasn’t anywhere else round here) he said he meant in this local area. In fact the Roadway Inn was a very clean motel with good wifi, well appointed rooms and a swimming pool if you wanted a swimming pool. So it wasn’t as much of a rip-off as I had feared.
I moved some stuff from the car into my room and dropped my binoculars and some books. Then I caught up on blogs and emails and then bought most of the bananas in the shop opposite (the only shop in town) for later and ate at the restaurant (the only one in town).
Then, thinking that I was on 296 species for the trip I resolved to inspect all the local sparrows for some new species and see what else I could see. Except I couldn’t see much, or rather I could see blurred versions of everything.
I suppose that they make binoculars quite carefully so that the two eyepieces point in the same direction and dropping them on the concrete had adjusted the setting rather a lot. Since I have had these Zeiss 10x40B Dialyts since my 18th birthday (they are 37years old) I feel quite attached to them. Fingers crossed they are mendable.
Being an optimist I told myself that it would have been much worse t any other time on the trip.
Birding was impossible – the only species I could identify were vermilion flycatchers, and only the males of them. So, I was let off looking closely at sparrows.
I turned up for the bat flight and added a new species of bird to the trip list when I realised, rather late in the day, that the swallows flying around this cave were cave swallows not cliff swallows – 297 but not much scope for any other additions.
There were hundreds of us waiting for the bats to come out. we were told that we must turn off all cameras, phones games etc at 1945 and that we would be in trouble if we didn’t. We were also given the chance to spend $5 on adopting a bat(but we couldn’t take one home). And we were told to be quiet.
I got a good view of an amazing insect that shoots around these parts – it’s a tarantula hawk, a kind of wasp that lays its eggs on tarantulas down their burrows I am told. I’d seen some and wondered what they were. My first sighting had me thinking it was a hummingbird at first. But they are big, fly very fast in straight lines and are black and red. When this giant wasp landed amongst us most people backed away but I leaned forward to get a better view. Impressive and no need for binoculars.
Eventually the bats started coming out of the cave. They were an impressive sight and we all enjoyed them but there were high hundreds or low thousands so it wasn’t quite the wildlife spectacle I had been expecting.
More impressive was the wildlife law enforcement officer who hoiked several people out of the crowd for using cameras – we had been told sternly and often that we could not. Whether these people were fined thousands of dollars I don’t know- but they had been warned.-looking; shorter than me but bigger than me with a bull neck and a very stern expression. He has a ‘Don’t mess with me (or my bats)’ look about him.
You know what they say about Texas – they have it bigger!
This evening I stood on a bridge in Austin over the (Texas) Colorado River with maybe 500 other people, and there were another 300 or so on the banks of the river and another 100 or so in boats or kayaks on the river. We waited for a bat spectacular.
The Austin American-Statesman newspaper let lots of us park in its parking lot and we thronged the Congress Avenue bridge in the middle of Austin. On the north side of the bridge were tall buildings including the Radisson Hotel whereas the Hyatt was on the south side.
Great-tailed grackles flew around and perched on debris in the river. A few green herons and snowy egrets flew past. A large turtle was in the river too.
Men sold ice-creams and water bottles. Nobody told us to be quiet or to turn off our phones. There were all sorts of people there.
A young lady in cut off shorts, a deep tan, a scooped neckline, red lipstick, white teeth and matching light green finger and toenails said to the two drippy looking blokes with her that ‘Things should start right now’ at 2038. Huh – what does she know?
Within 90 seconds the first few thousands of bats were emerging from the very bridge on which we stood. 20 feet below me thousands of bats were swirling around. Then they headed off along the river at tree-top height, heading south east.
A plume of bats headed out from the bridge for a couple of minutes – an unending stream.
Wow! That was great! But that was just the beginning.
After a short break the stream started again and bats poured along the river side. Then another stream started from the middle of the bridge and another from the northern side. Three plumes of bats heading off to feed. In the twilight we could see them hurrying away in long flappy lines. They passed across the face of a distant block of flats (apartments) where a peregrine plucked a bat from the throng and headed back to the centre of town with it.
For a few moments there were bats everywhere to the east of the bridge in long whisps of bat-smoke.
This was a wildlife spectacular. This was a natural wonder. This was free and it was in the middle of one of the USA’s big cities – and it will happen every night through the summer.
We are told that about 1.5 million bats use this bridge as their nursery colony. I’m not arguing with that – there were lots.
I note in passing that several flocks of passenger pigeon were estimated at being in the low billions of individuals. Audubon estimated a flock as over 1 billion near Hardinsburgh, KY where I met the mouthy waitress on a Saturday five weeks ago.
The Mexican free-tailed bat show in Austin is the closest that modern-day Americans, and passing Brits, can get to seeing the abundance of life that the passenger pigeon provided. Let us hope that the next century is kinder to wildlife, in the USA, and across the world, than it has been in the last couple of hundreds of years. We can and must do better…
I fly home tomorrow but there will be some USA trip-ending blogs to come. And then I have some book reviews to write for this blog, including one of George Monbiot’s book. And then, soon, this blog will revert to pointing out how nature could be better served in the UK by politicians, NGOs and the rest of us.
To the just under 5000 readers of this blog whilst I have been in the USA – I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip. Thanks for coming with me. No roadrunners were harmed in the making of this blog (and I saw another one today).