Austin Youth River Watch pilot program a great success, expanding in 2023B


By Kristen Pope

Last summer, when millions of Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) emerged from Bracken Cave, swirling in a “Batnado,” a group of students stood transfixed by the vortex. Visiting from Austin, the teenagers were part of Austin Youth River Watch (AYRW), a program that serves Austin-area youth. 

Austin Youth River Watch group poses at Bracken Cave

During the summer of 2022, Bat Conservation International (BCI) and AYRW partnered to offer a Bat Week where students immersed themselves in bat facts, created bat art, studied bat habitat, learned about bats in their own neighborhoods (using an acoustic monitor to discern which species lived by their homes), and met live bats being rehabilitated by Austin Bat Refuge.

“It gives kids an interactive bat experience,” says BCI Community Engagement Manager Erin Cord. “It’s very exciting and memorable when you see a live bat.”

Participants also had opportunities to go on a field trip to Bracken Cave and a boat ride near the Congress Avenue Bridge, which is famous for being home to the world’s largest urban bat colony. Approximately 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live under the bridge, and each night they emerge to feed. From the water, the AYRW students had a front-row view.

In November 2022, the students planted a bat garden in the backyard of AYRW’s EcoHouse headquarters. Central Texas Gardener, an Austin PBS show, came to film their work. Designed by landscape architect Rachel Raise, it features a variety of native plants that are attractive to moths and other nocturnal insects, which in turn creates a space for bats to feed.

“The students felt a connection with bats and their own lives,” Cord says. “They learned that bats were part of their neighborhood, which many didn’t realize before.”

This year, BCI and AYRW are partnering to plan more activities, including field trips and local activities, and delving further into bat garden maintenance, especially after a winter of wild weather. 

The pilot community engagement program in Austin was so successful that BCI is planning on expanding its efforts to work with nonprofits in other communities in 2023, including San Antonio and Miami.