What we did not see.
(Photo from
Bat Conservation International)

Much of my time surrounding yesterday’s Austin SCBWI conference was meticulously planned — the full-to-bursting conference itself, the half-dozen manuscript critiques I provided, my performance as tour guide for my visiting agent, my mission to meet the macaroni-and-cheese needs of my visiting editor, and the post-conference consumption of chicken fried steak at Threadgill’s.

But meticulous planning will get you only so far. After dinner, another local writer and I took four out-of-towners to participate in the beloved Austin activity of watching 800,000 or so Mexican free-tailed bats take flight from beneath the Congress Avenue bridge as the sun went down. A lot of people do this — yesterday evening, hundreds of folks standing on the bridge or sitting with us on a hillside below waited for the bats to emerge.

We waited, and we waited, and we waited. The sun set completely with no mass emergence of Tadarida brasiliensis. The sky darkened to the point where we really couldn’t tell whether any bats were flying out at all, or if they were just clinging to the outside of the bridge — either way, none of us were going to witness the spectacle of all those flying rodents silhouetted against the fading evening sky.

What could we do? We’d showed up on time, we’d waited for a long while, but there was never any guarantee that any of us were going to get what we’d come for. Families with small children were the first to pack it in and head for their cars. When the patient troop of Boy Scouts from Humble, Texas, got up and left, I took that as a sign that the show — such as it was — really was over. We folded up our blankets, too.

But then one member of our party gravitated to a spot below the southeastern corner of the bridge, and gradually the rest of us joined her. If we used our hands to shield our eyes from the light of the streetlamp overhead, we could clearly see something. Not the picturesque bat exodus that we had expected, but something remarkable in its own way.

One-by-one at times, and other times in clusters, the bats were indeed coming out — though that’s not what we saw, exactly. What we saw instead was more amazing than that. A few feet or yards from the bridge, the bats just seemed to materialize. Suddenly, in midflight, there they were, their brown bodies flitting and swooping and darting. And then, just as amazingly, they seemed to dissolve into the night sky or into the shadows beneath the bridge.

Over and over, we watched it happen. Everybody else had gone, but the six of us who stayed received our own private display. It was not what we had planned for. It was wholly unexpected. And it was uniquely memorable.

They say that a certain percent of success (or life) is just showing up. Last night was a reminder that there’s also something to be said for sticking around and keeping your eyes open.