Bats You Gotta See Now Off the Beaten Path in Florida

Don’t let this creep you out but this off the beaten path report is about bats — the kind with wings.

There are a number of places across the U.S. where you can see mass flyouts of these nocturnal mammals, and we encourage you to make time for one or all of them. Some are in striking rural settings, like Carlsbad Caverns, and some in equally interesting urban locales, like the State Street bridge in Austin.  

We recently had a chance to watch the evening departure from another spot, the campus bat houses at the University of Florida.

It was certainly not warm when we arrived, and we came early to get a good look at the bat houses, unsure if there would be any evening departure in the coolish weather. 

They are interesting looking structures. I’d describe them as two-car garages on 15-foot poles (sort of like a beach house) and with open floors — by no means small bat boxes that are more typical.

An image of bats leaving the bat house in the evening.
Bats leaving the bat house in the evening… off the beaten path. Photo by Thomas Wright.

All Kinds of Bats!

According to university lore, the bats originally lived in the attics of Johnson Hall, a historic building that burned in 1987. From there, the bats moved to the stadium that housed the track and tennis teams. Bat droppings  (aka guano aka bat poop) became a nuisance, and when the university president got bombed at an event one day, it was decreed that the bats were no longer welcome.

Thousands of bats were captured and relocated to a newly built bat house in 1991. They moved out the first night and didn’t return. The bat house was a failure and sat empty for more than three years. In 1995, for no reason anyone could identify, the bats returned and moved in for good. The colony continued to grow and by 2010 required a rebuild and the addition of a second bat house for the newcomers. Bat droppings collected from beneath the colonies is composted and used to enrich the soil of the university’s landscape plantings and student gardens.

These are mostly Brazilian free-tailed bats and are strong fliers. They’ve been clocked at 60 miles an hour with a tailwind and can get almost two miles up in the atmosphere. Their nightly feeding forays range 20 miles or more from the roost. In Gainesville, they are joined by evening bats, another common Florida species, and the less common southeastern bat, the only bat known to regularly produce twins.  

We got busy cooking dinner in the RV, determined to stay until sunset to see if there would be a departure. The parking lot began to fill up, and a small crowd gathered on the wide sidewalk between the bat houses and Lake Alice.

An image showing the bat houses during the day.
The bat houses during the day.

Crowds Gather to Talk, See Flying Bats

There was much chatter and speculation among the crowd, almost entirely made up of first-timers. Will they fly tonight? How many are there? What do they eat? Will there be babies? How do they get out? Questions flew and were answered by others more knowledgeable in bat lore. As the sky darkened, a few bats emerged, flitting around the space under the bat houses. Then there were more and then, in an instant (it seemed), thousands of them were pouring out of the houses, forming two longs streams heading out to feed somewhere off the beaten path,

We watched for about 20 minutes. One group headed off north to who knows where, and another flew out over the lake, snapping up flying morsels of food above the water. Before the night was over, they’d eat about two-and-a-half billion insects. 

The crowd seemed quite satisfied with the display, and so were we. It’s worth a stop, and a bit of a wait, to see this nightly show going on up there, both above and off the beaten path.

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