Charity Logo

Charity Logo

Charity of the Month


In December I am riding for Heifer International. Founded in 1944, Heifer International works with communities around the world to end hunger and poverty and to care for the Earth. Its approach is more than a handout. Heifer provides animals (e.g., heifers, goats, water buffalos, chickens, rabbits, fish, and bees) and training to impoverished people in over 30 countries. The animals can give milk, meat, or eggs; provide draft power; or form the basis of a small business. Communities make their own decisions about what crops, animals, and market strategies make sense for their everyday conditions and experiences.

Heifer International is based on 12 Cornerstones, such as Sustainability; Genuine Need and Justice; and Gender and Family Focus. Perhaps the best known Cornerstone is Passing on the Gift, in which Heifer recipient families pass on the offspring of their animals to others in need. In this way, whole communities can raise their standard of living.

A donation to Heifer International also can make a wonderful alternative holiday gift. Instead of yet another sweater for Grandma that she really doesn’t need, why not donate a Heifer animal or a share of an animal in her honor? Does your child really need so many new toys? Instead of five new toys, give him/her three new toys and a Heifer flock of chicks. Heifer has honor cards to let your loved ones know of your gift on their behalf.

I have set up a Team Heifer page to support Heifer International through A Year of Centuries. My goal is to raise $500. Please make your donation through If you would like more information about Heifer’s work, please visit Whether you give to honor a loved one or make a regular donation, thank you for taking steps to transform the world for the better.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bats and Bicycles

Two years ago Robert and I had one of the best long-weekend trips ever when we went to Austin and San Antonio, Texas.  What spurred me to plan the trip was the opportunity to go to Bracken Cave, owned by Bat Conservation International (BCI).  At the time, Bracken Cave was not open to the general public, but as a BCI member, I could visit and bring a guest on a Member Night.  (BCI now offers several nights each year when the general public can visit Bracken Cave.)  Little did I know, just how wonderful the whole weekend would be.  It was filled with bats and bicycles.

We flew into San Antonio on a Thursday and drove our rental car to Austin.  After checking into the very cool Hotel San Jose, we began exploring the South Congress Avenue area, a hip and vibrant part of Austin.  I was excited to spot this tribute to bats right away:

The real attraction, however, was the bats themselves at the Congress Avenue Bridge.  This bridge is the summer home of over one million Mexican free-tailed bats and is the largest urban bat colony in the world.

During the warmer months, female bats give birth and raise their baby bats.  We joined several hundred people that evening to watch in amazement as the bats few out from beneath the bridge.  The bats are quite the tourist attraction!  This wasn’t always the case, though.

The Congress Avenue Bridge was renovated in 1980.  The new design inadvertently created an ideal bat roost because of the long, thin joints added to the bridge decking.  Mexican free-tailed bats, especially maternity colonies, like to cluster together very tightly in such crevices.  Over the next few years, more and more bats began to roost in the Congress Avenue Bridge.  As the bat population grew, so did the public’s panic.

Fortunately, BCI moved its headquarters to Austin in 1986.  Through a vigorous community education effort, BCI taught the people of Austin that not only are bats nothing to fear, but also bats are highly beneficial because they eat so many destructive insects.  Now, Austin welcomes the return of the Mexican free-tailed bats each spring.

The crowd waiting for the evening emergence of the bats

Bats flying from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge (much more impressive in person)

Having been a BCI member for so many years, the next day I had to take the opportunity to visit BCI headquarters.  The office was very quiet because almost all of the staff was out in the field working – right where you’d expect them to be!  However, Linda Moore, Director of Administration and Finance, seemed genuinely glad that Robert and I stopped by to say hello.

After an enjoyable afternoon touring the Texas state capitol, it was time to make a few preparations for a bicycle ride the next morning.  Austin is very bicycle friendly.  Shortly before our visit, Austin had revamped the streetscape in the South Congress Avenue area.  A bicycle lane was striped next to angled parking spaces, which were next to the curb.  Cars have to back into the parking spaces so that they can more easily look for cyclists in the bicycle lane before they pull out.  How enlightened!  Even the dead guys are into cycling:

When we were planning our trip, Robert contacted several bike shops in Austin to inquire about local rides.  Eventually, he got in touch with a very nice man named Brad, who leads a group ride from his house every Saturday morning.  (Interestingly, Brad is a lawyer who specializes in cyclist injury cases.)  He warmly welcomed us to join the group while we were in Austin.  Not only that, when Robert asked him about the logistics of renting bicycles, he generously offered to let Robert and me borrow bicycles from him and his wife!  So, that evening Robert and I went by their house to check out the bicycles.  They actually fit us pretty well.

The next morning, Brad and his wife weren’t able to join the group ride due to a prior commitment, but they introduced us to the others.  It was a friendly group, and they were no slouches when it came to riding!  Similar to our group rides at home, the peloton broke apart as the ride progressed and the stronger riders put the hammer down.  We rode for several hours and had a good workout.  Another noteworthy aspect of the ride was the roads.  Traffic wasn’t an issue because of the very wide shoulders, but there was significant debris in them.  I’m surprised that the riders there don’t get more flat tires than they do.  It also made me appreciate what an excellent place Robert and I have for our group rides.  The roads on our usual routes are well maintained with relatively little traffic, a combination that isn’t found everywhere.  Even with the Austin road debris, however, it was great to connect with another cycling community.

Robert and I got cleaned up from the ride, checked out of our motel, and headed toward San Antonio.  One side note very worthy of mention is the restaurant where we had a late lunch.  It was in New Braunfels, a town settled by Germans in the mid-1800s that retains much of its German heritage.  I have very fond memories of New Braunfels from a family trip in 1984 and wanted to visit it again.  During the planning of Robert’s and my trip, I selected Friesenhaus in New Braunfels as our lunch stop.  We couldn’t have made a better choice.  It had the most delicious German food and an excellent selection of authentic German beers.  We sat there enjoying our meal so much that we actually Googled German restaurants on our phones to see if there were any within an hour’s drive of our home back in Georgia.  (At the time there weren’t, but we are so glad that Der Biergarten has since opened in downtown Atlanta.  Ja!)

Things were about to get even better.  Having been wowed by the Congress Avenue Bridge bats, Robert and I had no idea that an even bigger adventure awaited us at Bracken Cave that evening.  Bracken Cave, which lies between Austin and San Antonio, is home to the largest bat colony in the world.  About 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats live there during the summer.  Like the Congress Avenue Bridge, Bracken Cave hosts a maternity colony.  The mother bats give birth and then raise the baby bats for about eight weeks.  The young bats were approximately six weeks old during our visit, making them teenagers.

Our BCI guide met everyone at the property entrance.  We caravanned to a bunker area where soldiers stayed during the Civil War and World War I.  They mined bat guano (droppings) from Bracken Cave to make gunpowder.  Today, BCI sells the guano for organic fertilizer.  We saw bats flying overhead at the bunker area:

But the real show was at the cave entrance, a short hike away.

The bats emerged in three main groups over several hours.  They swirled out of the cave entrance in a vortex.  The cave is approximately 180 feet high at its tallest point.  Because the cave entrance is not this high, the vortex had to somewhat collapse on itself as the bats emerged.  Talk about excellent fliers!  The bats flew in a stream into the wind, which gave them lift.  As they flew higher and higher, they dispersed in all directions.  A bat may travel as much as 50 to 60 miles one way each night.  That’s a lot of energy expended by a little mammal that weights only about as much as two quarters.

Sitting quietly in the viewing area, you can hear the soft rustle of millions of bat wings.  If you listen very carefully, you might even hear their high-pitched calls.

There’s no way to describe the awesome beauty and majesty of the Bracken Cave bats.  Seeing them was truly one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had.  How many other wonders in the world must there be that humans rarely – or never – get to see?

I didn’t want the evening to end.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t have any trouble staying up later than usual.  Robert and I strolled along San Antonio’s famous River Walk.  We celebrated bats – pollinators of the agave plant, which gives us tequila – with Texas-sized margaritas!

The next day it was time to go home.  We did have one other unexpected delight before we left.  We went to the San Antonio market area, thinking that this would be a good place to look for one last good Mexican meal.  (Of course, we had already had some delicious Mexican food several times over the previous few days.)  A vendor at the market suggested a restaurant called Pico de Gallo, a short walk from there.  I was looking forward to some of my favorite Mexican dishes, like chiles rellenos and tamales.  Alas, Pico de Gallo was still serving breakfast.  My disappointment didn’t last long, though.  I had never had a real Mexican breakfast before, and it was fabulous.  The restaurant was filled with locals rather than tourists, and so we obviously had hit the jackpot.  Ole!

It was an absolutely incredible trip of bats and bicycles.  I always think back to it whenever I see bats flitting around at twilight.

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