The Selman Bat Watch

by Nathan Gunter


With a month and a half left until the official kickoff of football season, the NBA finals and the World Cup over and two more years before any Olympics, I decided to take some time off baseball and engage in one of my other favorite pastimes: exploring Oklahoma.

I’ve been dying to see the Selman Bat Watch for years. This year I got the chance.

The Selman Wildlife Area near Freedom is the summer home to one of the state’s largest colonies of the Mexican Free-Tailed Bat, which in 2006 was named Oklahoma’s official flying mammal. Under Department of Wildlife management since the mid-1990s, the 340-acre site is only open to 75 guests per night, Thursday through Saturday nights in July. Tickets, which are $10 per person and $5 for children under 13 (though kids under 8 are not recommended), are awarded by a lottery held in early June.

Driving through western Oklahoma is near the top of my list of favorite things to do. We loaded up our dog, booked a room at the Days Inn Woodward, and dressed according to the guidelines the Wildlife Department provided – jeans, boots, long sleeved shirts. You know – in case the group meets up with an irritable rattlesnake (1).

Melynda Hickman, a wildlife diversity biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, manages the July bat watches at the Selman cave. She told me that the bats migrate from Mexico every April to give birth in the same cave where they were born. Over a million bats return to the cave in the spring, but the truly remarkable nightly exodus from the cave doesn’t begin until July, when the newborn bats have learned how to fly on their own. With the exception of the newborns, all the bats in the cave are female, and several generations of bat families can be found there.

The meeting place for the Watch is Alabaster Caverns State Park, where at about an hour before sunset Hickman and an army of volunteers meet ticket holders to drive them in a pair of school buses to the Selman site, several miles away. There, the group is divided into smaller groups who go on a nature walk through the site. Volunteers point out native prairie plants and animals. Sand plums and wild sage grow by the trail, cedars, wildflowers and tall grasses waving in the soft breeze. There’s nothing like the smell of the prairie; I instantly felt right at home.

The watch takes place several hundred yards from the entrance to the actual cave; no visitors to the site even get near enough to see it. Our group got to hike up the trail and pop open our camp chairs closer to the site than anyone else, owing to the fact that none of us had children in tow. The smell of ammonia wafts through the entire site; one of the park rangers explained to us that this is the smell of “beetle farts;” apparently the beetles who subsist on the cave’s prodigious amounts of bat guano (1) are hungry and gassy.

The sun sets, everything gets cool, and the group gets quiet. Here or there a bat flutters overhead, and everyone gasps.

Then, a cloud like a dark river emerges from the direction of the cave. A few bats – mostly newborns who’ve just learned to fly, Hickman tells us – fly over in our direction, breaking from the massive formation. It twists and writhes through the air, marginally resembling the smoke monster from Lost. When it passes overhead you can hear the rush of the bats’ wings beating the air; it sounds like a river. Even the bugs seem to go silent. Here and there a hawk or an owl strikes at the dark column, nabbing a bat in midair and dragging it away.

For twenty minutes or more the dark cloud of a million and a half bats rush forth into the night. Hickman told me that the bats regularly reach speeds of over 30 mph (upwards of 60 with tail winds), and can travel as much as 120 miles round trip in one night. They eat half their body weight in insects before returning. On their return, between 4 and 7 a.m., they come in at extremely high altitudes. When they reach the cave they fold up their wings and fall hundreds of feet, loudly popping open their wings when they’re level with the cave once more. I immediately begin plotting ways to witness this spectacle, for which tickets are not available.

Everyone leaves the cave awed, quiet, with the feeling that we’ve witnessed something rare. Sacred, even. Bats no longer seem creepy, or dirty, or frightening. A million stars come out as the group boards the buses back to Alabaster Caverns. Lightning flashes through a distant storm on the prairie. We drive back to Woodward, excitedly recounting what we’ve seen and learned. The University of Central Oklahoma observatory is nearby, and all Bat Watch attendees that night were invited to a star party, but we’ve left our dog alone in the motel room and know anything but an immediate return would result in us spending the night cleaning the carpets. Maybe next time.

The Selman Bat Watch continues Thursday through Saturday nights in July, though tickets for this year are no longer available. But you need to add this to your list of Things To Do in Oklahoma. If you have kids, try to get tickets for a Thursday night watch – the program on those evenings is geared more toward kids. When you’re up there, arrive early enough at Alabaster Caverns to take one of the hourly tours, and wear shoes you don’t mind getting dirty. On the drive up, stop at the Gloss Mountains on U.S. 412 and hike up to the top. Listen to the Flaming Lips’ “At War With the Mystics” in the car – it’s perfect music for driving through the prairies. Especially songs 3-5.

(1) or Lance Bass.