This post covers the epic turnout for our field trip to the Phoenix Bat Tunnel. For information on both Bat Tunnel locations, as well as further reading and educational resources, please scroll to the bottom of this page!
Ever since we found out about the urban colony of Mexican Free Tailed Bats in Phoenix, Kat and I have gone every summer to check them out. Every year, between the months of May through October, we make our way to one of the downtown overflow tunnels to hang out with 10-15,000 Mexican Free Tailed Bats! Last year, we decided to invite our friends and fellow community members to join us. We had approximately 40 people come out to learn all about megabats, microbats, bat anatomy, echolocation, and of course, to see the colony of Mexican Free Tailed Bats as they took off to hunt for the night!
Last year’s field trip went so well, we decided to make it an annual event. This time, my good friend Eric Proctor, the Wildlife Educational Coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, got involved with us and threw in some wonderful surprises! Not only would we invite our fellow nature lovers out with us again, but this year our presentation would include mummified bats, live bats, bat skulls and skeletons, and sonar listening devices that we could use to listen to the bats as they used echolocation to hunt at night!
Word spread like wildfire, and within hours we had already surpassed our turnout from last year. Within days, our RSVP count had passed 200! By the time our Bat Tunnel Field Trip day had arrived, we had almost 500 people in attendance! It was incredible to see so many smiling faces, our fellow nature lovers had come out in droves to see the bats go out to forage, and to join us to learn all about them!
We started off our Bat Tunnel Field Trip with a brief presentation about bats. Eric and I took turns talking about bat anatomy, dexterity in flight, migration patterns, echolocation, and of course the Mexican Free Tail colony here in Phoenix.
We talked about the special ridges on bats ears that can help them focus the incoming sound waves into a detailed 3D image, and we talked about the pest control that the bats facilitate during their nightly hunts. Eric talked about how this echolocation is also used by bat moms to find their bat pups (which is just the cutest name for baby bats!), which is incredibly useful not only in our 15,000 bat colony, but especially in colonies where numbers can reach into the millions!
When we were done with our presentation, it was time to walk around and get some personal time with families as we talked about our bat friends. We had a lot of kids and parents come up and check out our mummified bat specimens, as well as the live bats! The nice thing about these bats were that they are all found in Arizona! The live bats were Pallid Bats, one of the largest bat species in Arizona. It eats scorpions and centipedes!
We also had a mummified specimen of the Pallid Bat in a display with a mummified Pippistrelle Bat and a Mexican Free Tailed Bat. The Pippistrelle and Free Tail are both bats that are found in the Bat Tunnels here in Phoenix. The Pippestrelle is one of the smallest bat species in North America, and usually flies out first once the sun goes down. The Free Tail Bat makes some of the largest bat colonies in North America and is responsible for a significant amount of pest control (those large colonies can eat up to 250 TONS of insects per night!).
It was great to have specimens of the bats that we would be seeing that night, it really gave everyone an idea of the size and shape of the bats, as well as a bit more excitement of what to look forward to!
Soon, it was time to take our skulls and skeletons on a walk through the crowd! This was a lot of fun as it gave everyone a really close look at all of the wing anatomy we had been talking about! Kids and parents were able to get to see the elongated fingers that stretched into wings, as well as the little thumb at the top of the wing that bats use to climb around on various surfaces.
We also had a skull of a Golden Flying Fox, which was great for comparing the large eyes of this megabat, to the smaller eyes of the microbat skeleton we had. One of the greatest parts of talking about the Flying Fox skull, was that I got to share the immense size of the Flying Fox with the kids. Some Flying Fox species can get as tall as they are!
Before long, it was sunset, and the bats were beginning to fly out! The excited group of families quieted down as the bats started to fly and flutter about it in groups of a dozen. It was wonderful to see so many smiles light up on everyone’s faces as the bats flew around them, and to see kids’ eyes grow wide with wonder! Fingers were pointing, smiles were alighting, and the bats were foraging. It was showtime!
Mr. Proctor took this opportunity to walk around with the sonar listening devices so everyone could get a chance to hear the bats send out their calls for echolocation. It was delightful to see so much excitement over the clicks and buzzes on the speaker! Bats “chirp” at a higher frequency than we humans can hear, so having these devices tuned into their frequency made it that much more exciting. He even stuck the sonar listening device into fence and was able to get a huge symphony of bat clicks and chirps!
Still, even with the bats flying out, it became clear that there weren’t going to be as many as we had hoped for. Bat are wild animals, after all, and it can be incredibly difficult to predict where they will leave for the night and how many will be there. We’ve been out at both tunnels to see thousand of bats emerge. Sometimes there will only be a few hundred as the bats will have chosen a different exit. It seems that on this night, the bats had chosen a different exit for the most part. Still, we did have a nice enough showing that the kids and many of the parents were still really happy and excited about it!
After the main event was over, it was time for some last minute looks at the skeletons, skulls, and specimens. We had flashlight conversations over skulls, wings, fingers, and bugs. At this point, the Pallid Bats were even starting to move around, which the kids all found to be absolutely adorable.
All in all, our Bat Tunnel Field Trip was a HUGE success! We had a fantastic turnout of between 400-500 people, and a lot of friendly and excited families! My absolute favorite time was spent with so many kids, talking about bats, exchanging what we knew about them, and watching their eyes light up with wonder and delight at so many batty treasures. Everyone seemed to have a great time, and the kids learned so much! It was great to hear the many exclamations of “Oooh!”, “Ahhh!”, and to overhear the conversations that so many parents and kids were having about bats, what they had learned about, or things that they had already known but were looking forward to seeing!
I am so grateful to everyone who came out that night! Sharing in the delights of our own urban bat colony with so many nature lovers in our community was just wonderful! It was such a treat to see old friends, make new ones, and to share something that we love so much with all of you. It was also such a treat to hear so many kids and adults enthuse about the bats! With so much wonder, delight, and enthusiasm around, it was an incredible community experience!
I am also very grateful to my friend Eric Proctor at the Arizona Game and Fish Department for coming out with us. He turned what would have been a fun field trip into an absolutely INCREDIBLE experience that kids will remember for years to come! It’s people like him, with his love for nature and sharing in his enthusiasm of animals, who make our community so great. Thank you so much Eric, for coming out and sharing your knowledge, time, and resources with all of us!
As a side note, Eric has done some amazing work with Game and Fish and Focus Wild Arizona, in developing fantastic educational resources for teachers and parents in Arizona. His classes fill up within seconds every year, and his workshops are not to be missed! They are usually free, or there will be a small fee for supplies and other resources. They often involve learning about animals, conservation, and can at times involve working with biologists for wildlife captures or observations! Here is a link to a huge repository of Arizona wildlife education resources, courtesy of Eric Proctor at Arizona Game and Fish!
PLAN YOUR OWN ADVENTURE!
If you would like to head out to the Phoenix Bat Tunnel to check out the bats as they emerge for their nightly hunts, you can go at any time while they’re here! The Mexican Free Tail Bats roost in Phoenix from the end of May through the beginning of October. The best time to see them is in August and September, as the baby bats have grown up, bringing the colony to full size.
It’s free, open to the public, and there are two locations that you can choose from!
24th Street and Arizona Biltmore Circle:
This is the location in which we held our field trip. It is located on 24th Street, just south of Lincoln Drive, on the SW corner of Arizona Biltmore Circle and 24th Street. You can find parking in the commercial parking lot on the NE corner, located at 2400 E Arizona Biltmore Circle.
The Bat Tunnel is located just south of the Squaw Peak Police Precinct. You’ll get to the sidewalk, and walk just behind the hill (currently populated with political signs) to the canal. When you see the giant white pipe, you’re there! Also keep an eye out for dragonflies and red tailed hawks. As the bats come out, you might see some interplay between the bats and the night flying birds who prey on them!
40th Street and Camelback Canal
This is where we held our very first first field trip in 2013! The Bat Tunnel is located at the Overflow Tunnel off of 40th Street and Camelback, on the north side of the Canal. Parking is tricky here; there is a parking lot in a strip mall on the SW corner of 40th St and Camelback. You can find public parking in commercial spots around the area, but please pay heed to private and restricted parking lots.
Once parked, walk to the canal on 40th Street and Camelback. On the north side, you’ll head west for about 1/4 of a mile. Then you will see just off the path on the north side, a wide space with a black wrought iron fence. This is the bat tunnel! There is a huge viewing area here, along with posted signs from Game and Fish about the bats. You will also find plenty of jackrabbits and dragonflies, and you might even spot a red tailed hawk or two!
RESOURCES FOR LEARNING ABOUT BATS!
If you’d like to learn more about our nocturnal flying friends, here are a few links to get you started!
The Arizona Game and Fish Department has released a downloadable poster of all of the bat species in Arizona. Used by classroom educators, this download is free for you to use in your classroom, workspace, or home! You’ll also find classroom lesson plans organized by grade level.
Over the years, we’ve covered quite a bit of bats in our Fall lessons! Here is our information on Megabats (Fruit Bats, Flying Foxes, etc) and Microbats (Mexican Free Tails, Vampire Bats, etc). You’ll also find information on bat wing anatomy, echolocation, and some games you can play with the kids in your classroom or at home to further cement what you’ve learned in your batty adventures.
If you’re interested in building a bat house for your backyard, here is a link from the National Wildlife Foundation on how to construct it! Not only will you find a detailed materials list and set of instructions, but you can also register your bat house as a certified wildlife habitat site!
Here are some videos that will be helpful in learning all about bats!
Here is a look at one of the largest bat colonies in North America. It’s the Free Tail colony of Bracken Cave in Austin Texas!