Slowly ambling through my fifteen-acre bird census plot, I note early migrants but am pleasantly distracted. Looking and listening, I see that tiny leaves and flowers have appeared, especially on shrubs and small trees, allowing them to get a start on light gathering before taller trees clothe everything in shade. Mexican and creek plums, redbuds, and scalybark and Shumard oaks are well into bloom, and Ohio buckeyes are starting. Plateau spiderlily dots the warmer, upper slopes and ridgetops with blue and will color the cooler lower slopes and stream terraces a week from now. It lives only in central Texas -- an endemic.
I discover a newly excavated red-bellied woodpecker hole twelve feet up in a dead white ash. An eastern phoebe catches honey bees on plum blooms but leaves a feeding monarch alone, apparently recognizing its toxicity. Phoebe and monarch are spring firsts this day, the bienvenida (welcome) monarch two weeks ahead of schedule. A flock of common grackles turns leaf litter on the forest floor, replacing migrated American robins and joining nine-banded armadillos in aerating the natural compost. I follow the leaf sorting, designed to uncover insects and last year's fruits, and see tiny spiderlily seedlings. Carolina wrens are merry troubadours that sing with mouthfuls of nesting material, reminding me of Mark's comments about these "cheat-a-ba, cheat-a-ba" birds that disturbed his teenage sleep. Incubation begins in another week or two, eggs hatch in early April, and wrenlets fledge two weeks later, as second nests are already underway. Last year's nest that I remove from our old wicker fishing creel has animal hair and fine cedar bark inside coarse strips of cedar bark and leaf skeletons. No oaks but softer sugarberry, elm, and ash leaves with grass and small twigs are present with someone's grocery list, a sign of suburban living.
Older, more experienced eastern screech owls nest earliest, and I guess correctly that the gray male I've known for six years has a new gray mate with eggs. Screech owls make no nest but lay two to six eggs on whatever debris is in the bottom of tree cavities or nest boxes. Two other boxes have gray owls that fly out as I climb the ladder, and two more have familiar gray females, one eight years old and the other five, a bird that I banded as a nestling in another ravine a half-mile away. It is reassuring to see all the wild neighbors and know that we still share the same home.