When you want to see a Cave Swallow, the logical thing to do is head for a cave. Since I wanted to see a Cave Swallow very much, we decided to visit the granddaddy of all caves, Carlsbad Caverns National Park. At this time of year there are supposed to be lots of Cave Swallows nesting just inside the cave entrance. Besides, I’d visited there as a child, but Pete had never been.
Located in SE New Mexico, Carlsbad is a comfortable eight-hour drive from Colorado Springs. The local motels were expensive (over $100/night at Motel 8!) but there aren’t a lot of options. It’s either pay the price or camp in the nearby Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Since temperatures were predicted to be over 100° we decided to shell out the bucks and enjoy showers and air conditioning. At least it would be cool underground.
Carlsbad Caverns isn’t the prettiest cave we’ve been in. Jewel Cave, in South Dakota, and Shenandoah Caverns in Virginia are contenders for that award. Nor is it the biggest—even with 30 miles of explored passages (and they’re still discovering more). But it’s still plenty interesting. You can pay for one of several guided tours or hike a self-guided route. We did both. We also hiked in the natural entrance; a couple of miles of steep downhill bring you to the areas accessed by the elevators.
I had worried that I wouldn’t see my target Cave Swallow. Worrying turned out to be a complete waste of time. We saw hundreds nesting just inside the huge cave opening. You can’t help but notice them swooping around your head, clinging to the walls, heading out to grab a bug for lunch, or bringing back a snack for the young they were feeding.
Trying to get a photo was another matter. Those birds are fast! I had to settle for pictures of perched birds and vowed to practice on the Cliff Swallows near our house when we got home.
In among all the swallows, I didn’t notice the Canyon Wren at first. Then I heard its distinctive spiraling song and started hunting for white and orange. Sure enough, a solitary wren was hopping back and forth across the vertical rock walls of the cave entrance.
At dusk, the swallows returned to their roosts and settled down for the night. For a few moments, all was still, the quiet broken only by the still-singing wren. (Several people wondered what could be making that beautiful song, and I was able to introduce them to one of my favorite birds.) Then the first of the bats began to emerge.
Cameras and other electronic devices aren’t allowed at the Bat Flight. The rangers claim the bats were disturbed by either the electronic emissions or the lights, and refused to leave the cave until the visitors went home. I’m not sure that would matter, but having dozens of useless flashes going off would certainly bother the rest of the spectators! It was well past sunset, with the fast-flying bats dimly silhouetted against the darkening sky. Photos would have been impossible in any case. (The photo here is from Wikicommons.)
I was hoping the bats would emerge in a giant cloud of flapping wings, as in the photos at the visitor center, but instead they trickled out in groups of a dozen or so. They would swirl around the entrance (and over our heads) and then head out over the desert for a drink from the nearby Pecos River. From there they would spread out in search of insects. We were told that a nursing bat will eat her body weight in insects every night.
These are Brazilian Free-tailed Bats (aka Mexican Free-tailed Bats), with bodies about the size of your thumb, but a wingspan closer to a foot across. We learned that have only one baby per year. Shortly after it’s born, the mother moves it to the nursery chamber and hangs it on the ceiling with the other babies. If it falls, it dies, eaten by the horde of hungry beetles waiting hopefully below. The young make their inaugural flights when they’re about a month old. You can only see the bats in the summertime.
That was plenty to see and do in one day. But the caverns aren’t the only place of interest. The locals complained that there was nothing to do in the area, but we stayed busy. Stay tuned for the rest of our trip.