October 18, 2010
Twenty-four hours after strolling in shorts and a tank top in the hills of Tucson, I woke to a chilly morning in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, the crisp, near-freezing air and pine trees around me a welcome break from the hot deserts. [Thanks Gordons!] Within hours, however, I was back down in the dusty towns east of the mountains, on the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert.
In the far southeastern corner of the state, on the edge of the Guadalupe Mountains, lies Carlsbad Caverns National Park. First explored by Native American Indians over millennia ago, white settlers discovered a portion of the cavern in the 1800s, and investigated it in the early 20th century. It became a National Monument in 1924 and a National Park in 1930. I don’t have specific statistics on it, but I would bet that it is one of the most-visited parks, over time. This is particularly impressive, given that the cave is largely in pretty good condition. Visitors used to enter on a long, long staircase, but there are now elevators to the cave level, and hand-held tour narratives for the “Big Room.” The alternative is to walk down a concrete ramp from the gaping “natural entrance” to the cave, which closes a few hours before sunset so as not to interfere with the bats that use it to enter and exit the cave. I got lucky and arrived just in time to go through the Natural Entrance. Since I was the last one in for the day, and mid-week October is a low season for tourism, I had the cave to myself for most of my descent from daylight to the dimly-lit formations of the caverns below. As far as what I saw there, I’ll let the photos do the talking, even though my point-and-shoot camera can’t do justice to the sights!
The National Park isn’t only about the below-ground attractions, and I was able to see some pretty interesting things even with my limited time on-site. I was able to note where a flash flood had flattened vegetation and torn up brush, and beyond that was an overhang used as a rockshelter by Native Americans. I wish I’d had more time to spend in the park, as the late fall flowers were in bloom and it would have been nice to explore the longer hiking trails and wilderness areas.
After touring the cave, though, I only had about 45 minutes to kill before the evening Bat Flight program began. We visitors gathered in the outdoor amphitheater just above the Natural Entrance, and an interpretive ranger discussed bat facts and answered questions until the spectacle started: Mexican (sometimes known as Brazilian) Free-Tailed Bats began to pour from the cave and fly toward the valley and plains to the south. I stuck around and watched for just under an hour – we were told that it might take hours for the million-plus bats to empty from the cave for their evening meal of flying insects from the fields below. It was impressive to watch: at first glance, it seemed like a disorderly exodus, but, as I watched, order took shape in the flight patterns. The bats flew out of the cave and turned to the right, circling counter-clockwise around the “roundabout” in front of the Entrance until there was a “lane” free to head up and over the lip of the mountain that separated the cave entrance from the vast plains of southeast New Mexico (and Texas beyond). I was thoroughly impressed by the capabilities of bat sonar, as the Mexican Free-Tails consistently avoided even the thinnest grass and agave stems despite being crowded into a narrow area. Photography isn’t allowed in the amphitheater, but if you check out the links above, they have some photo and video of the Carlsbad bat flight.
Bats are truly amazing and unique creatures! That is why the recent spread of White Nose Syndrome (WNS) among hibernating bats is such a devastating issue. Check a future post for more information on this disease!