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Some enterprising visitors along the bayou harvest the rich guano as fertilizer. Jogger Patrick McIlvain explains that he worked at a flower shop/nursery that sold guano, although the source was always a secret. "I've been 90 percent sure this is where it was, but this time, after it was pinpointed, I heard the noise, the squeaking."
Documentation of the colony goes back to another local entity that left Houston dangling like an upside-down bat: Enron. Joe Kolb was an Enron biologist who led the corporation's conservation volunteers. Mark Kiser, with Bat Conservation International, told Kolb he had heard about a big colony along Buffalo Bayou. Kolb remembers heading over with co-worker Bill Hendrick in his '81 Toyota to check out the report.
"I had people stop me when I was down there and go, 'What are you doing?' I'd tell them, and they'd go, 'You know, I always thought I was going crazy when I went under the bridge and heard that squeaky sound.' "
They didn't have a flashlight capable of penetrating the darkness of the bridge crevices, so Kolb used the detachable visor mirror of the car to reflect sunlight up into the underbelly of the bridge.
"Man, there's a lot of bats here!" he remembers saying when they made the discovery. "It wasn't just a few hundred -- there were obviously thousands and thousands."
The Enron workers' conservation efforts included installation of a bat house in Sam Houston Park. They also collected bat skeletons from the Waugh bridge area in an attempt to identify whether the mammals were migratory Mexican free-tails or nonmigratory Brazilian free-tails. The skeletal remains were shipped off to a researcher at the University of Tennessee. "Enron fell apart about that time, and I don't know the rest of the story," Kolb laments. The bat colony has fared far better.
It is relatively easy to hear the inhabitants' high-pitched noises, although viewing the bats can be challenging. Kolb says it is possible to look straight up in some areas to see them. High-powered flashlights can help with visibility, or visitors can climb up the slanted embankments for close-ups.
At a recent dusk, Elvia and Mark Moeller arrive from watching canines at the nearby unofficial dog park. They station themselves under the bridge to catch the action when the bats emerge. The winged creatures soon begin dropping out of the crevices, regrouping and darting, looking not unlike a swarm of giant mosquitoes before heading over the banks to the north and vanishing beneath the canopy of trees.
"It's so wooded along the bayou that when the bats begin to come out of the cracks at night they're hard to see," Kolb explains. "It's hard to get an angle that you can 'skylight' them -- look against the sky and see them flying."
However, if Spence's plans succeed, the more wide-open Main Street bridge area will become the primo vista for the bats of Houston.
First, he's working with UH-Downtown's natural sciences department on a smaller version of his plan, using the third-floor deck of the campus. "What I would like to do is suspend these large bat roosting structures underneath the south deck, very similar to what you would find at Waugh Drive, but it wouldn't be part of the structure," he explains.
Spence isn't naive about the problems associated with expanding the project to the Main Street bridge and possibly the nearby Travis Street bridge. The red tape of dealing with various governmental agencies would be enormous, he concedes.
But if the UH project works, they'll be touting its success and showing up at City Hall to seek approval. With bat in hand, no doubt.