First White Christmas in Recorded History in Lower Rio Grande Valley

Photographed by Mark B. Bartosik - December 25, 2004.

For the first time in 109 years, the Rio Grande Valley was covered in snow. And I was lucky enough to be there to see it. Watching all those tropical birds on snow-covered branches was an incredible experience. It was probably a once in a lifetime opportunity - I was in the right place at the right time.

I went to McAllen, Texas, on Dec 23, 2004, planning to visit Bentsen State Park for several days and photograph birds and other wildlife. Christmas Eve day I had to stay in my room all day because it was such a cold, rainy day. The forecast for the next day was good, so I woke up early, and when I took a look through the window my eyes popped wide open instantly. Everything was covered with snow. Only a few fresh footprints were on the sidewalks. It was still dark when I went outside and tried to decide if I could drive my car to the park. It took quite a while to scrape the snow and ice from the windows and warm up the car. With only the windows cleaned off-a kind of "snow car"- I hit the road. What is usually a 15-minute drive to the park turned out to be about half-hour trip-not too bad for those icy roads. McAllen and the surrounding areas received 3 inches of snow that night.

When I reached Bentsen SP the sun was already above the horizon. I was a bit angry with myself for not leaving earlier, but I forgot about it as soon as I saw the snowy paradise inside the park. Many birds were already flying around and landing on branches fully loaded with snow. They were singing and searching for food. Normal everyday activities, just as if nothing unusual had happened. Most of the species living there are tropical birds that never see snow. Their great, great, great grand-parents saw it last on February 14-15, 1895. I spent all day long observing and photographing green jays, Altamira orioles, great kiskadees, thrashers, plain chachalacas, least grebes, and many others enjoying their first white Christmas. I was so exited that day I forgot all about drink and food. I didn't remember to eat until dinner at 6 p.m.

Single patches of snow were still in the woods the next day, but the weather changed drastically. It was warm and the sky was clear for the next few days. I had an opportunity to see and photograph many more interesting species. All three kingfisher species (belted, ringed and green) were there. One whole day I stalked great kiskadees, trying to keep my balance in a muddy ravine near a small lake. I was rewarded by getting shots of the birds diving for fish, picking up their prey, and flying away with meals in their bills. I was also incredibly lucky to catch a moment of a territorial fight in the air. My beloved least grebes became used to my presence, and a huge flock of them (more than 30 birds) often hunted for fish nearby.

I am so in love with the Rio Grande Valley, I want to go back there tomorrow!