By Keith Hudson, Wildlife Biologist
Wildlife watching… to many folks it means watching birds, or perhaps observing deer, squirrels or backyard wildlife. But another type of wildlife watching gaining popularity in recent years is viewing bats. These mysterious flying mammals have for years been misunderstood, needlessly feared, and have often attained a false reputation as dirty, blind, bloodsucking, or harboring excessive levels of rabies. Bats are to some people mysterious creatures of the night.
Some of this misunderstanding has lessened in recent years, and bats are increasingly being seen as fascinating creatures, to be valued and viewed. This interest has led to a demand by the public for information on how and where they can go to view bats. Listed below are several places in or near Alabama that are easily accessible for bat viewing.
1. Sauta Cave National Wildlife Refuge, Jackson County. One of the most interesting natural sights in Alabama, indeed, in the southeast, are the summer evening emergences from Sauta Cave of over 250,000 gray bats (Myotis grisescens). This is the largest emergence of bats east of the Mississippi River, and Sauta contains the largest summer colony of this species. Gray bats are a federally listed endangered species. Though impressive emergences at gray bat caves occur from May - September, emergence numbers are most impressive during mid summer. By standing near Sauta’s entrance, thousands of bats can be seen flying over your head during the 30-40 minute show. A hint for visitors: A cap, hood or umbrella should be used while viewing, as visitors may be “put upon” while enjoying the show! A little planning will prevent observers from carrying home an unwanted souvenir of the experience. The refuge is located 7 miles west of Scottsboro, Alabama, just off U.S. Hwy. 72 on the south side of the highway. A short trail walk from the highway takes you to the cave. For more information contact Wheeler NWR at (256) 353-7243. No public admittance into the cave is allowed. Emerging bats can be viewed from an observation deck at the cave entrance. There is no fee for viewing.
2. Cave Springs Cave, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, Morgan County. Another impressive gray bat cave available for public viewing is Cave Springs Cave within Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. In late summer, gray bat emergence from this site can total over 40,000. No public admittance into the cave is allowed. Emerging bats may be viewed from the cave entrance. There is no fee for viewing. For more information and location contact Wheeler NWR at (256) 353-7243.
3. Hambrick Cave, Marshall County. This TVA-owned and managed cave is located on the Tennessee River, about a mile upriver from Guntersville Dam on the north side of the river. It is also a gray bat cave and one of the largest maternity colonies of this species. Evening dusk emergences can exceed 60,000. Typically, boats anchor just off the cave entrance to view the emerging bats. Visitors should be careful not to shine beamed lights of any kind on the bats during emergence as it affects the bats and the viewing. Access and viewing is by boat only. No public admittance within the cave is allowed and there is no fee for viewing.
4. Blowing Spring Cave Preserve, Lauderdale County. This small gray bat cave is owned and managed by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. A summer emergence of 8,000-10,000 gray bats can be seen each evening at dusk. It is walk-in access only to the cave entrance. Location and information may be obtained by contacting the State Lands Division at (334) 242-3484.
No public admittance within the cave is allowed. Emerging bats are viewed from the cave entrance. There is no fee.
5. Cathedral Caverns State Park, near Grant, Alabama. This showpiece cave is known nationwide for its magnificent cave formations. Guided tours on paved tourist trails are available. Along the trail, hundreds of eastern pipistrelle bats (Perimyotis subflavus) can be seen in the winter, though fewer are seen in the summer. Other species, such as big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus), are also found regularly. The cave is open year round except Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years Day, and there is an access fee. Contact (256) 728-8193.
6. Nickajack Cave – The entrance of this extensive cave is just .4 miles north of the Alabama-Tennessee state line. It is very near the tri-state junction of Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. During the summer, dusk emergences of over 60,000 gray bats can be viewed from a small observation platform by the cave entrance or by boat from the Tennessee River. Nickajack is accessed from a TVA boat launch off Tenn. Hwy. 156. No public admittance within the cave is allowed. There is no fee.
Other bat watching locations around the nation can be found in Bat Conservation International’s The Vacationer’s Guide to Bat Watching available through the University of Texas Press. Trips may be taken to view bats at these locations; however, you don’t have to travel very far at all to see them. Just as birds are around your house during the day - at night, so too are bats. In the waning light of day, bats may be observed flying around neighborhoods, or catching insects around streetlights. Some people even erect bat houses in their backyards to attract and watch bats. Whether watching thousands of bats emerge from a cave or flying around your neighborhood, watching these fascinating creatures can provide many hours of enjoyable wildlife viewing.