Virginia and California have their wine trails; Kentucky has its bluegrass and bourbon trails; and Illinois has a path for a Frank Lloyd Wright pilgrimage.
And though Florida is best known for its citrus, sunshine and sand, theres another wild attraction sprinkled across the state: large colonies of bats ready to put on a sunset show.
Home to 13 species of bats, the states year-round warmer temperatures means Floridian chiropterans are active every month of the year. Temperate-zone and tropical species also wander in from north and south, bringing the total number of bat species that can be found in Florida at any given time to 20. That includes a highly endangered species endemic to the southernmost regions of the state: the Florida bonneted bat (Eumops floridanus), which has somehow persisted in the face of drastic habitat loss from urban development.
Florida is a really big state, with a lot of ecological diversity, said Mylea Bayless, BCIs Senior Director of Network and Partnerships. Its one of the few places in the U.S. that has truly tropical ecosystems, and because its warm and wet, these huge colonies can form that make for really fun bat watching.
But Florida is also a place of striking contradictionsswamps and bayous compete with golf courses and high-risesand the states dazzling biodiversity is feeling the pinch. Despite the rampant development, people still want to be outside and enjoy nature, and the increased interest in witnessing a huge colony of bats drop out of their big houses is proof.
Its not just Florida, eitherwe get calls from out of state, from Alabama, Arkansas, golf courses, universitiesall over the place, said Paul Ramey, a spokesman for the University of Florida-Gainesville, home to an enormous colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats. There wasnt always a crowd out every night to see the bats, but their popularity has just grown. Its one of those things that people just want to do or see.
While you may not make it to all of these locations in a few days or even a week, no matter where you find yourself, theres a bat show waiting for youand each one with a slightly different essence of the many ecological flavors that abound in Florida.
University of Florida Bat Barns
Museum Road, Gainesville, FL 32611
Far and away the states best-known bat attraction, the three large structures near Lake Alice on UFs Gainesville campus are thought to be the worlds largest occupied manmade bat houses. Over 400,000 bats occupy the two houses and the larger barnprimarily Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis), but also southeastern myotis and evening bats. (In Florida, Mexican free-tails are known as Brazilian.) Ramey advises visitors to bring an umbrella, or at least a hat. Youll want protection not only from Floridas infamous unpredictable cloudbursts…but also sprinkles of bat waste as the free-tails pass overhead to feast on insects drawn by the carbon dioxide in the gathered onlookers exhalations. Ramey also cautions that bats may not emerge when temperatures dip below 65 F, so check the weather forecast before making plans.
Lubee Bat Conservancy
1309 NW 192nd Ave
Gainesville, FL 32609
When Executive Director Brian Pope recounts visitors reactions after seeing Lubees main attractions scratching each other, munching on cantaloupe, and playing with toys, he cant keep the wonder out of his own voice. By the time theyre done with the walk-through, their preconceived notions about bats being these disfigured, demonic creatures are gone. They come away with a completely different view.
Lubee is home to over 200 animals across 19 species, mostly Old World fruit bats, including the planets largest, the giant Malayan flying fox. Visitors also meet several southeastern U.S. native bats, including southeastern myotis and evening bats. Apart from the annual spring open house and a festival in the fall, which are free and open to the public, tours are charged a booking fee and must be arranged two to four weeks in advance. Pope also recommends checking out the three large bat houses in the Old Florida town of Micanopy, a 45-minute drive to the south.
Centre of Tallahassee Bat House
2415 North Monroe Street
Tallahassee, FL 32303
Nestled next to a cypress-lined pond in an urban park adjacent to the Centre of Tallahassee mall, this community bat house is thought to house up to 40,000 bats. Accessible off John Knox Road, the pond and its bat house sit directly across from ample parking, accessible via the shopping centers perimeter road. A locals-only gem, the bats nightly emergence draws a regular crowd of onlookers from the Tallahassee area.
Hickory Mound Bat House
Big Bend Wildlife Management Area
Gulf Coast, Taylor and Dixie Counties, FL
Just south of Tallahassee, on Floridas Gulf Coast, lies the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area (WMA). This 90,000-acre preserve, comprising swamp, mixed pine and hardwood forests, serves as an important habitat for numerous species of birds, fish, crustaceans and mammals, including several species of bat. The parks Hickory Mound area features a large bat house that survived the ravages of Hurricane Hermine in 2016. Accessible from Coker Road, the house is halfway along a mile-long unpaved trail. Bring your echometer to tease out the different calls of emerging Brazilian free-tailed, southern myotis, tricolored, and red bats.
Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge
16450 NW 31st Place,
Chiefland, FL 32626
One-hundred miles south of the Big Bend WMA along the coast, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge is also home to a large community bat house, which sits along the main road just inside the park entrance. Visitors can avail themselves of ranger-led talks near the house, in which over 100,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats roost and descend every evening.
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park
3076 95th Drive, Live Oak, FL 32060
Located midway between Tallahassee and Jacksonville in north Florida, visitors flock to Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for its lineup of local musical acts, tribute bands and music festivals. Bring your camping gear; the park is a destination for RV and tent campers alike. Before heading over to the main pavilion to catch some tunes, check out the parks large bat house in a nearby clearing. Hawks positioning themselves around the field will be your signal that the several thousand bats roosting in the house are about to emerge. Admission is $2 per person or $5 per carload.
Fort Cooper State Park
3100 S. Old Floral City Road
Inverness, FL 34450
An hours drive from Orlando or Tampa, Fort Cooper State Parks large bat house is home to 5,000 bats who emerge nightly to avail themselves of the areas abundant insects. In addition to bat-house building workshops, the park hosts periodic ranger-led bat viewings at the community bat house, which was built and installed by Eagle Scouts. Park entrance is $3 per vehicle.
Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park
1001 North Blvd.,
Tampa, FL 33606
Near the Fortune Taylor Bridge in a vibrant park on the banks of the Hillsborough River in Tampa, look for a bright blue box painted with silhouettes that leave no question about its purpose. Designed to house 4,000 Brazilian free-tailed and evening bats, the house was erected to provide an alternate refuge for some (or all) of the bats already living in the bridges joints, which was slated for repair construction in 2017. While its unclear if bats are occupying the house itself or still roosting in the bridge (formerly known as the Laurel Street Bridge), park employees say that bats are a regular feature of the parks evening life.
Patch of Heaven Sanctuary
21900 Southwest 157th Avenue,
Miami, FL 33170
Executive Director Fred Hubbard has high hopes for the new pagoda-like bat house that rises high above the eight acres of this rare tropical hardwood habitat: that Floridas rarest bat species will eventually call it home. The Florida bonneted bat is known to inhabit the area along with 12 other species, including the Brazilian free-tailed bat, evening bat, yellow bat, and southeastern myotis, and the sanctuarys upper levels were constructed specifically to meet the bonneted bats roosting preferences. Tours of the preserve are $25 and must be arranged in advance.
Be sure to inquire specifically about bat-oriented evening activities.