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To the bat cave!


In July, 75 lottery-selected guests can see Oklahoma’s official flying mammal make its exodus through the night sky.

Nathan Gunter May 25th, 2011

The perennial flurry of vampire-centric films and television shows tends to be long on the hot, brooding bloodsuckers and short on the winged, furry mammals.

After all, nothing destroys the benign boy candy vibe of a Robert Pattinson-level broodfest like knowing he spends part of every night practicing echolocation as a flying mammal.

But at a 340-acre tract of land in northwestern Oklahoma, visitors can spend an evening watching thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats leave for the nightly hunt. The Selman Wildlife Management Area near Woodward is the summer home to one of the state’s largest maternity colonies of the bat, which was named Oklahoma’s official flying mammal by the Legislature in 2006.

Every April, thousands of them — mostly female — migrate to a cave in the Selman area to birth and raise their pups.

“The cave is the perfect size for the Mexican free-tailed bat females to use as a maternity cave,” said Melynda Hickman, an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation wildlife diversity biologist who manages the July bat watches in Selman.

She said that although the bats arrive in Oklahoma in early April, watchers must wait until July to see a truly organized emergence as the new born bats start to learn how to fly.

“The female bats tend to return to the cave where they were born,” Hickman said. “We know there are sisters, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, great-great grandmothers.”

WATCH THE SKIES
Every night at about sundown, they set out to hunt insects, and the sky fills with a sound like a river as millions of bats wing overhead. Hickman said the bats eat at least half their body weight in insects nightly and have been known to fly 120 miles round trip in one night at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour. The bats use echolocation — a sonar-type wave emitted from their open mouths — to find their prey.

The Thursday-Saturday viewings of the bats’ exodus have become so popular, Hickman said, that in 2010, the wildlife department began using a lottery system to determine the 75 guests taken to the cave nightly.

“Protection is critical,” she said.

“We want to minimize any impact to the habitat. A 75-person group is small enough that we can have a more quality experience.”

Visitors begin the evening at Alabaster Caverns State Park near Freedom. Transportation to the Selman area, which is only open to the public during the bat watches, is provided. Visitors trek through a prairie canyon of white gypsum bluffs to the cave opening. Families with children under 8 are encouraged to attend Thursday nights, as Friday and Saturday nights are longer, with a prairie-stargazing session featuring telescopes and astronomy lessons following the watch.

Lottery applications are available at wildlifedepartment. com, along with recommendations on what to wear and bring.

Registration opens Tuesday, and all applications must be postmarked by June 7. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $5 for children up to 13. Ticket recipients will be notified by email around June 10.

GET GYPPED
Families looking to make a day trip out of it may consider spending the day at Alabaster Caverns State Park, home to the only gypsum show cave in the U.S., according to Mike Caywood, park manager.

“It’s the largest gypsum cave in the world that’s developed for touring,” said Caywood. “The things you’ll see here are different than in any other cave in the world.”

Daily guided tours are available on the hour, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day, then until 4 p.m. the rest of the year. Caywood said that nighttime “lantern tours” through the cavern focus on the area’s mythology.

“There are unsubstantiated stories of moonshiners hiding out in the cavern,” he said. “There’s an old map showing it may have been the hideout of the Doolin brothers.”

Lantern tours begin at 7 p.m. Saturdays; guests are required to preregister at travelok.com.

For travelers looking to make a weekend of Selman and Alabaster Caverns, the state park features 11 semi-modern RV campsites and 12 tent sites, and is located adjacent to the privately owned Cedar Canyon Lodge.

 
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