Footballs aren’t the only brown objects soaring through the sky at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Tens of thousands of brownish-gray Brazilian free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis cynocephala) inhabit the campus and their departure from the UF Bat House each evening is one of Gainesville’s most interesting ecotourism attractions.
How Many Bats Inhabit the UF Bat House?
University of Florida estimates the bat house has more than 100,000 free-tailed bats inhabiting the man-made building and it’s believed to be the “largest occupied bat house in North America.” (Source: “The Bats of the University of Florida Bat House,” by Bill Kern, UF: Florida Wildlife Extension www.wec.ufl.edu). Just after sunset, bats begin their flight into the night sky in search of dinner. UF estimates this colony feasts on between 10 and 20 million insects each night making them a natural pest control service. During a recent trip to Gainesville, curiosity led me to the campus to see firsthand what 100,000 bats in flight look like.
Viewing Gainesville’s Most Interesting Ecotourism Attraction
Arriving about 10 minutes before sunset, I secured a front row spot by leaning against a wood fence that was a barrier between the spectators and a field with the bat house. A mix of university students, visitors and locals joined me as we waited for the nightly show. The stench of guano (bat dung) was strong yet tolerable.
While waiting for the sun to set, I watched dragonflies dance in the field but was interrupted when a bat zoomed toward my face. Gasping, I leaned back as it immediately shot upward and over my head.
Soon the sun set and bats began flying out individually. As the evening grew darker, more bats flew out until there was a steady stream flowing from the bat house, bending around the branches of a tree and over the spectators heading toward Lake Alice behind us. The stream of free-tailed bats dissipated above the lake as they scattered to search for insects.
A couple of spectators screamed but most exhaled “ooh” and “ahh” over the amazing black river in the sky. After about 10 minutes, the constant flow of bats stopped. Just like the free-tailed bats, the spectators and I scattered to go about our evening.
Planning Your Visit to the University of Florida Bat House
The bat house is located on the northwest corner of Lake Alice on Museum Road. Look for the tall building with the image of a black bat at the top. Parking is just past the bat house on the right. Arrive 15 to 20 minutes prior to sunset to see a handful of bats depart for the evening. After the sun sets, expect to see more of the colony stream out. The bat house is available for viewing year-round and there is no admission fee.
The original house was constructed in 1991 but in Aug. 2009 it collapsed. A new bat house opened in Oct. 2009 with the capacity of up to 200,000 bats.
Where to Stay in Gainesville, Fla.
Located less than two miles from the University of Florida Bat House is the Hampton Inn & Suites Gainesville Downtown. The hotel opened the summer of 2009 and is ideally located in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of dining, shopping and nightlife. Complimentary breakfast is included with the room rate. (101 SE 1st Ave.; Tel: (352) 240-9300; www.hamptoninnandsuitesgainesville.com)
Where to Eat in Gainesville, Fla.
Within walking distance of the Hampton Inn & Suites is Dragonfly Sushi where they serve a sophisticated menu with entrees fitting everyone’s budget. Try the signature dragonfly roll. It is albacore tuna is wrapped with grouper, baked then topped with scallions and eel sauce. (201 SE 2nd Ave., Suite 104; Tel: (352) 371-3359; www.dragonflysushi.com)
Located about a 10 minute drive west of the Hampton Inn & Suites is New Deal Cafe, a casual restaurant serving a mean hamburger made from locally raised beef. The cafe also serves healthier alternatives. (3445 W. University Ave.; Tel: (352) 371-1711; www.newdealcafegainesville.com)
Personal Visit, Oct. 2010
UF: Florida Wildlife Extension http://www.wec.ufl.edu/extension/wildlife_info/wildlife_uf/bathouse.php
Dragonfly Sushi www.dragonflysushi.com
Hampton Inn & Suites Gainesville Downtown www.hamptoninnandsuitesgainesville.com
New Deal Cafe www.newdealcafegainesville.com