Spence wants to bridge the bat gap.
Spence wants to bridge the bat gap.
Daniel Kramer

Going Batty

Lawrence Spence isn't a warehouse loft redeveloper or even an entrepreneur pushing for another NoDo nightclub.

But this schoolteacher shares some of the same dreams. He wants to add enough unique downtown housing to attract a few hundred thousand late-night, high-flying party animals. And in the process, he'd create the kind of tourist draw that Tilman Fertitta would envy -- all without a penny in typical City Hall subsidies shelled out for new showpieces of a revitalized downtown.

Spence wants to bring in an overlooked asset that's already attracted to central Houston: bats.

He hopes to experiment with bat houses at the University of Houston -Downtown. If those homesteads work, Spence will be ready for his most ambitious project: suspending bat housing beneath the Main Street bridge near the university. Before long, Spence believes, the bats would become a spectacle luring nightly crowds comparable to the big bat show at the Congress Street bridge in Austin.

He can already imagine the scene on the banks and bluffs of Buffalo Bayou. "In my mind, we've got the light rail there and the university, and we want people down on the water," Spence says. "And here is a way to attract people: 500,000 bats taking off every night. Somebody's going to come down there and watch them."

Spence, a 2002 graduate of environmental education at UH-D, wants to give other Houstonians the same lessons he offers his students at Crockett Elementary in the First Ward. "As with all creatures, I'm just trying to make them aware of how valuable an animal the bat is, not only ecologically but agriculturally."

That point was especially relevant at his school. Many of his students are of Hispanic origin, he says, a culture with a traditional fear of the small flying mammals. "Especially, a lot of them come from Mexico where there are vampire bats," he says, "and there are mythological creatures that suck the blood of animals."

As for vampires, authorities note, bats are the ones eating the dominant blood-sucking Houston creatures: mosquitoes. Bats also devour crop-eating moths and other insects, improving crop yields and saving people millions of dollars in pesticides. Experts say there is the fear of rabies from bats, although there is little risk if people do not try to handle them.

Spence's batmania began years before the teaching job. As an undergraduate, he and UH professor George Farnsworth heard that Houston was soliciting proposals for a $15,000 grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the Urban Migratory Bird Conservation Treaty. The pair realized that enhancing the habitat for migrating birds would also enhance bat habitat. That helped give rise to the group Birds and Bats on the Bayou, which is both embryonic in development and ambitious in plans. It has spread wildflower seeds at several urban locations and it also launched Spence into his efforts to determine the best types of bat structures and locations.

The Birds and Bats project is a collaboration among the Houston parks department, Kids on the Bayou, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, UH-Downtown and the college's Environmental Club. They've set up one prototype bat house at Johnny Goyen Park between the UH-Downtown campus and the bayou. Another bat residence went up on green space along White Oak Bayou, and Kids on the Bayou established a bat house at Pine Shadows Elementary School in Spring Branch. Soon there will be others at Crockett and Brock elementary schools.

Spence says the basic housing for bats, as specified by the Austin-based Bat Conservation International, is a quadruplex -- four main chambers in a rectangular box. Measuring 31 inches high, 18 inches wide and only six inches deep, it is about the size of an attaché case turned on its side. It and a 20-foot mounting pole cost $175. For $325, bats can have the added luxury of a collapsible pole -- for people to lower the house and remove wasps if they have taken over the residence.

Each standard house will hold about 150 of the most common variety, the Mexican free-tailed bat.

Bridge-mounted "bat lodges" would each hold up to 5,000 bats and would cost about $2,500 plus installation. They are two feet high, two feet wide and five feet deep.

Bat authorities say there should be no shortage of potential winged tenants; Houston already is teeming with bats, most of them unnoticed in the rush of daily urban life.

On a recent afternoon, occasional joggers lope along the path lining Buffalo Bayou at the Waugh Drive bridge. On the quieter north side of the bayou, a bicyclist has propped his ten-speed and himself against one of several oaks as he reads a book.

A woman jogs by on the south side near Allen Parkway, where cottonwoods meet the bayou's edge. She covers her nose with a cloth pad to blunt a sudden whiff of unpleasant odor, probably not recognizing the darkened streaks along the banks as guano. And most of the other visitors on this afternoon are oblivious to the scene just feet above their heads: Houston's largest bat colony, which is also believed to be the biggest known bat habitat in East Texas.

The latest estimate of their numbers is about 288,000, all wedged into homes within the crevices of the Waugh bridge. The structure's box beam design uses large concrete slabs with beams separated by expansion joints about an inch wide. Those spaces make ideal nesting areas for the tiny bats.

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.


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