Twenty years ago, Richard Phillip Eckert and Virginia Eckert Garrett donated to The Nature Conservancy a cave near the small Hill Country town of Mason that is the site of an amazing natural phenomenon. Every summer, some 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats migrate from Mexico to the cave to birth and raise their pups. And on most summer nights from roughly the middle of May through the middle of October, the public is invited to sit just a few feet from the bats as they emerge from the cave.
“About an hour or two before sunset, you can hear and see hundreds of bats fluttering and chirping just inside the cave,” said Vicki Ritter, the Conservancy’s bat cave steward. “Gradually, they come out to fly in a circle just outside the mouth of the cave, and eventually they move up into the sky in a spiral that reaches several hundred feet in the air, like a huge bat ‘tornado.’ Finally, the bats start breaking off into columns and move across the countryside. This can last for two hours or more.”
Ritter said the lone condition of the donation of the cave was that the eight acres around the cave remain open to the public for enjoyment and education, as it had been for more than 100 years.
“The Eckerts donated this preserve, which is located near the James River, in honor of their father, Lee Eckert, and grandfather, W. Phillip Ecket,” Ritter said. “The family has a long tradition of conservation, as well as a tradition of allowing members of the community to witness the bats as they fly from the cave.”
Those who make the trip to the preserve are treated to more than just the spectacle of the bats. This year marks Ritter’s fifth as steward of the preserve, and each night the bat cave is open, she provides a lively presentation about the preserve and bats.
Ritter takes care to point out that Mexican free-tailed and other bat species provide benefits to humans beyond an awesome sight. They are major consumers of flying insect pests – scientists estimate this species eats 6,000 to 18,000 metric tons of insects annually in Texas – providing significant assistance to agriculture.
Learn more and view a video about the Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve online at nature.org/texas.