Halloween is almost here - along with creepy decorations of tombstones, black cats, spider webs, and lots and lots of bats. In fact, the bat has become synonymous with all things dark and creepy on halloween - but have you ever taken a closer look at these mysterious winged creatures? Contrary to urban myths, bats are not all ravenous bloodsuckers nor are they harmful. They're actually a vital part of our environment. Bats deserve more credit than simply being a part of our Halloween decor! In Alabama, there are several caves that you can visit and watch thousands of bats take to the skies at dusk in spectacular horror movie form! Let's go...to the Alabama bat caves!
The Bat Backstory
We have 16 species of bats in Alabama - three of which are on the federally endangered species list. The endangered species include:
▪︎The Gray Bat
▪︎The Indiana Bat
▪︎The Northern Long Eared Bat
▪︎Tri-colored Bat (just recently proposed to be added to the endangered list in September 2022)
Alabama is playing a vital role in ensuring the future of these bats and many others. In the past decade, bat populations across the U.S. have seen a 75-90% decline. Thanks to the work of conservationists and public awareness, hopefully Alabama can help bring these bats back from the brink of extinction.
Batty Bat Myths
None of the bats in Alabama are "vampire" bats or bloodsuckers. The closest they come to consuming blood is eating a huge amount of mosquitoes each night - and that's only one way the bat is beneficial to us. Aside from keeping the insect population under control, bats are also essential to the pollination of many plants. Bats are not "flying rats" nor do they commonly carry diseases. Bats are actually tiny flying mammals - and although bats can catch rabies, it is only known to occur in 1/10th of 1 percent of the bat population. As a precaution, wildlife experts advise that you never handle a bat with your bare hands. Oh, and contrary to popular beliefs, bats do not try to get tangled in your hair, nor are they blind. Those myths are just plain batty.
To the Bama Bat Caves!
Alabama is the perfect place for bats. With our labrynth of limestone cliffs and caves, dark forests, and wide array of insects, it's no wonder that bats love to call Alabama home. Although mid summer is the best time to see the largest number of bats take flight from these caves, you can still visit year round. Here's a list of 7 known bat caves in Alabama where you can watch the bats take flight!
1. Saunta Cave National Wildlife Refuge
This is without a doubt the absolute best place in the state to watch the most dark winged creatures take to the skies like a bat out of...well, you know. Saunta Cave, formerly known as Blowing Wind Cave, is a state treasure complete with history dating back to the Cherokee Nation. It's located near Scottsboro in the middle of a 264 acre National Wildlife Refuge and is home to the largest population of the endangered Gray bats and Indiana bats in the United States - up to 250,000, in fact! It's also where you can witness the largest flight of bats from a single cave east of the Mississippi River. Today, the cave entrance is gated and closed to the public but the park service has built a very nice public platform where visitors can get a birds eye view of the thousands of bats emerging from the cave each evening. Over 5,000 visitors witness this stunning event each summer. Entrance is free. For more information, visit their website here...or watch this amazing video here.
2. Cave Springs Cave
Located in Morgan County in the Wheeler National Wildlife Preserve, this is another Alabama treasure where you can watch up to 40,000 of the federally endangered gray bats take to flight in late summer. If bats aren't your thing, the cave is also part of the North Alabama Birding Trail. As with all bat flight viewings, it's advised that you bring an umbrella or cap. Yep, the bats may give you a souvenir as they take to the skies! Entrance is free. For more info, visit their website here.
3. Hambrick Cave
Located in Marshall County, this cave is under the care and management of TVA. It's located on the north side of the Tennessee River, just a mile north of Guntersville Dam and is only accessible by boat or kayak. But if you've got the chance, you can anchor just off the cave entrance and see up to 60,000 bats emerge! This cave is extremely vital to the gray bat population being one of the largest maternity colonies of the endangered species. If you visit, it is asked that you please not shine flashlights or spotlights on the bats as they emerge as it can affect the viewing and their flight from the cave. Entrance is free. For more info, visit here.
4. Blowing Springs Cave Reserve
Another small gray bat cave of north Alabama where 8,000 - 10,000 bats can be observed emerging at dusk. Located in Lauderdale County and managed by the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, this cave can only be reached via trail and is not handicap accessible. Entrance is free. Location and more information may be obtained via the State Lands Division at (334) 242-3484 or visit here.
5. Cathedral Caverns
This is the best cave for winter bat watching! This is a commercially operated cave located in Marshall County where, in the winter, hundreds of tri-colored bats can be seen taking refuge along the cave walls. Tours are available year round and the cave is well lighted with pedestrian paths and rails throughout the cave. There is an entrance fee for a tour. For more info, visit their website here.
6. Nickajack Cave
This cave is less than a half mile over the state line in Tennessee at the Alabama-Tennesee-Georgia state line junction. During the summer months at dusk, over 60,000 bats emerge from the cave. A platform has been built at the site for observation which can be accessed from a TVA public boat launch off Tennessee Highway 156. There is no entrance fee. For more information, visit the TVA website for the cave here.
7. Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge
The number of bats at this location in a remote area east of Gurley, Alabama, will leave you absolutely batty! Fern Cave has the largest winter colony of gray bats in the United States! In fact, this National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect this extrmely endangered species. Over 1 million bats spend their winter here. The cave itself is off limits due to the fragility of the gray bat population - but the refuge itself is a wonderfully biodiverse area to enjoy nature and wildlife - that is, if you're up for a good hike or boat ride. Access to this extrmely remote refuge is only by boat on the Paint Rock River or via an extensive hike from an access road. This one is not for the amateur hiker. For more info, visit their website here.
Go To Bat for the Bats!
As stated earlier, bat populations in the U.S. have been on a rapid decline in the past decade. Much of this is due to destruction of their native habitats and a fungus that causes White Nose Syndrome, or WNS, in bats. Entire colonies of bats have succumbed to WNS losing over 90% of their populations according to a study published in Conservation Biology. Bats infected with WNS have a distinct patch of this white fungus that can be seen around the nose area - thus the term White Nose Syndrome. The fungus disturbs the bats hibernation in the winter resulting in catastrophic numbers of bats dying before spring. Bats, unlike rodents, usually only have one baby per year - so they haven't been able to repopulate as quickly as they are dying. So, how did this deadly fungus begin killing bats? Humans. The fungus is native to caves in Europe and it's believed that cave explorers brought the fungus back on their equipment to U.S. caves. This is why access to many caves where large numbers of endangered bats reside have had to be closed off to the public. Please respect the rules when visiting any cave in Alabama and beware that the ecosystem of these caves is extremely fragile. We've got to all go to bat for the bats - or we may see their extinction. That would be detrimental in terms of the natural pest control and pollination that bats provide. For more information about bat conservation in Alabama, please visit the following websites and consider donating whenever possible.
▪︎Alabama Bat Working Group
▪︎U.S Fish and Wildlife Service / Alabama Bats
▪︎Alabama Wildlife / Classroom Conservation Education Programs (scroll down the page for great info for kids and the classroom including building your own bathhouse!
▪︎Bat Conservation International
Is It Really That Bleak for Bats?
Because we still have a relatively large number of bats in our state, many Alabama residents have questioned whether things are actually that bleak for the future of bats. That's because Alabama is one of the few places where WNS and other factors have not killed off entire colonies of bats. Our state may be the last "bat bastion" of hope for many species. Please share this article, share awareness, and do all you can for the survival of our Bama bats in the future!
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Thanks for reading!