white-throated sparrow

white-throated sparrow

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Datsun-birding misadventures

My husband bought a 1982 Datsun diesel pickup from a farmer in Arkansas shortly before we moved out to Arizona.  It doesn't have a lot of miles on it, especially for a diesel engine, which is reputed to run forever and tends to outlast everything else including the body.  It's certainly been a fixer-upper; the engine runs great, but we've had to get new lights, new transmission, new brakes, and it still needs a new gas tank- the current one was bashed in by a tree sometime in its life, so we don't know its capacity and no doubt old diesel fuel and gunk has been pooling at the bottom of the tank for a long time.  The consequences of that were made very clear to me yesterday- more on that later.

When everything is working, the Datsun is great- it's not fast, but it can get 40 miles per gallon, reduced to the still-good 25-30 mpg when hauling our stuff cross-country.  I've enjoyed finally getting to able to learn how to drive a manual transmission.  But even now that I've more or less mastered it, there's always a sense of adventure when driving the Datsun, because you never know...

Misadventure 1.  Lessons of the differential.

A month or so ago Tom and I drove up the Redington Pass road to do some exploring.  This dirt road climbs the saddle between the Santa Catalina and the Rincon mountains, leaving the Tucson metropolis far behind and then descending back down into the vastness of the Sonoran Desert.  Our overly-ambitious plan was to drive this 30-mile dirt road, then take the "back way" up the Santa Catalinas to the top of Mt. Lemmon, then take the paved Catalina Highway back down into Tucson.  Overly-ambitious because most of this is winding dirt road and we left at noon.

Somewhere on the far side of Redington Pass we saw an interesting canyon a ways off the road, which looked like a fun place for a future camping trip.  We wanted to know if we would be able to drive down to it, and saw a dirt track leading off the main road in the direction of the canyon.  We drove down it a short ways just to check it out, and decided that due to the steepness and presence of loose rocks, the Datsun would not be the appropriate vehicle to take us down to the canyon (or rather back out of the canyon).  I don't remember the entire lesson Tom gave me on differentials, but the take-home message was that Datsun is terrible for any kind of sand/loose gravel/mud situation.  So what happens?  While trying to get back onto the main road, we got stuck in the ditch between the dirt track and the main road- both front wheels in the rut and one of the back wheels in sand.

It took us probably two hours to get ourselves out- we repeatedly jacked each wheel up, dug out sand and/or piled in larger rocks for the wheels to sit on.  We tried lifting the buried back wheel up with a ratchet strap, attempting to immobilize it as a modern differential would, but the strap snapped off the rack.  What eventually worked was jacking up the front end, me sitting in the back of the bed for counter-weight, and revving the engine in reverse.  The front end lifted out of the ditch, and we were free!  Fortunately there was an alternative (if also sketchy) track up to the main road, which the truck sailed over without incident.  But with the lost time, there was no way we could explore the back route up Mt. Lemmon, so we ended up making a loop around the Santa Catalinas on the main highways, getting home late in the evening.

Note the lack of birds mentioned as part of the trip.  Some Common Ravens flew over while we were excavating our truck; that's about it.

Misadventure 2: At least you can roll-start it...

Bendire's Thrasher is the only North American thrasher I still need to see (although two species are BVD: better view desired), and Mile-Wide Road west of Tucson often has some in the winter.  Last weekend Tom and I headed out there in hopes of finding one, with plans to visit Saguaro National Park afterwards for the scenery.  It's a nice drive out there, on a road winding up through Tucson Mountain Park and past the Sonoran Desert Museum, craggy mountains studded with towering Saguaro Cacti.  We reached Mile-Wide Road, descending out of the relatively lush Saguaro-Palo Verde-Mesquite habitat and into the sparser, drier scrub that Bendire's Thrasher prefers.  We pulled over and turned off the truck by some treatment ponds, spotting Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, and some female Bufflehead and Hooded Mergansers.  I scanned the scrub across the road, looking and listening for thrashers, but no sign of any.  We got in the truck to head further down the road, but as I turned the key all we got was click-click-click: the battery was dead!  We knew the battery was in poor shape, but this was still a surprise- all we had done was stop for a few minutes, with nothing running that would drain the battery.

The good thing about a manual transmission is that you can roll-start it, so rather than wait for somebody to come by, we decided to get the truck started ourselves.  Of course, we were parked the wrong way on a slight incline, so first was had to turn the truck around to get it facing downhill.  The truck is fairly light, but it's hard to push in gravel, so this necessitated a few instances of both of us pushing and then me running and jumping into the truck to steer.  But we got it turned around, Tom gave the truck a big push downhill, I popped the clutch, and the engine shuddered to life.  Great!  But of course with such a shitty battery, we needed to keep the truck running until we got home- so much for the Bendire's Thrasher hunt, the Datsun is too loud and rattly to just pull over to look/listen without shutting off the engine.  So we settled for a drive around Saguaro National Park to enjoy the scenery, and then went home.  And bought a new battery the next day.

Misadventure 3: Should've gotten that new fuel filter a while ago

Local birders have been (ahem) flocking to Santa Cruz flats lately for the winter goodies: Mountain Plover, Bell's and Sagebrush Sparrows (recently split from the original Sage Sparrow), geese, hawks, and Bendire's Thrasher.  I was mostly interested in finding the thrasher, but also was keen to see the plovers and sparrows, since I have little experience with those species.  So yesterday while Tom was asleep (he works night shift), I took the Datsun out and headed for Santa Cruz flats, about 40 miles northwest of Tucson.

When I got off the freeway at the Red Rock exit, I noticed a strong smell in the cabin.  Now, the Datsun often smells of diesel, but this seemed unusually strong, and I was concerned.  I stopped at the Red Rock Community Park, and when I popped the hood and looked inside, I was alarmed to find fluid spraying horizontally all over the engine (which was still running- there's a bad relay that prevents the engine from cutting out when you remove the keys, so we have to shut it off manually under the hood).  Later I would learn that the fuel filter was clogged; the spray was diesel that couldn't get into the filter.  At the time, all I knew was "shit, that can't be good".

I called Tom, even though I knew he was asleep and wouldn't answer.  Then I wandered around the no-stoplight town of Red Rock and entered a real estate office for help.  A salesman kindly searched for phone numbers of towing companies, and eventually I had a tow truck that would be heading my way from Tucson in a few hours.  With some time to kill, I decided to do a little birding, hoping especially to find Bendire's Thrasher.  The town wasn't particularly birdy, but there was enough to keep me occupied for a while: there were Say's Phoebes, a Black Phoebe hanging out by the community pool, a Vermilion Flycatcher, and lots of Anna's and Costa's Hummingbirds.

Anna's Hummingbird

Tom woke up early and called me about an hour into my wait, soon after the towing company had called to say that they're on their way.  From my description, Tom was able to figure out what happened and was sure he would be able to come out and fix it- which was desirable, because towing the truck all the way back to Tucson going to be costly.  So I cancelled the tow truck, and continued wandering around for the several more hours that it took before Tom could find and buy a new fuel filter and get out to Red Rock on his scooter.

It was late afternoon when Tom got to Red Rock, and he soon had the new fuel filter installed and got the truck running... for about ten seconds, after which it sputtered and died.  We tried to restart it, but no go.  Most likely, judging from the puddle of diesel under the engine and the fact that it could have been spraying diesel out all along the freeway before I noticed it, we figured it was out of fuel.  So Tom took off for the neared gas station (which was not very close), and I settled in to wait some more, watching the sun set over the mountains.

Tom returned after about 40 minutes, we put two gallons of diesel in the tank, and then... we still couldn't get it to start.  When it started at all, it would run for a few seconds before sputtering back out.  Most likely, judging from the nastiness in the old filter, there was a clog somewhere in the line.  We fiddled around for ages trying to get it started.  It was well after dark and getting cold when we decided we would need a tow truck after all.  I called company after company, but it being Saturday night, nobody had a truck available to come out to Red Rock.  I finally reached somebody who had one, and the lady put me on hold to finish with another customer first.  Meanwhile, Tom was working under the hood again and asked me to try starting it.  This time when it started, it stayed going strong- just as the lady from the towing company took me off hold and began asking me for details about my location.  "Um, I think we actually got it started!" I told her.  Tom had managed to unclog the injector, so the engine was finally getting a steady stream of fuel.  I was greatly relieved to have again dodged a towing bill, and we had an uneventful ride back to Tucson.


So... the Datsun is not an ideal birding vehicle, and until we get a new fuel tank and get the lines cleaned out, I'm not sure driving to Mexico for the Christmas Bird Counts next weekend is such a great idea.  My own car is in the shop, I'll find out tomorrow what's wrong with it and what it will cost to fix it.  So maybe I'll have my car back this week.  Or maybe I'll be taking the bus.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Little brown jobs

"Little Brown Job”: if you’ve not heard the term before, this refers to any number of drab, brown, often hard-to-identify little birds.  Sparrows.  Shorebirds.  Many flycatchers.  The kind of birds that give many birders fits.  And then there are crazies like me, who revel in the challenge and the subtle beauty of these birds; to me, the combination of warm chocolate brown, cool slate gray, and  biscuit-golden buff, all overlaid with streaks, is every bit as appealing as any iridescent hummingbird.

Lincoln’s Sparrow: little brown job

Paradise Tanager: not so much…

Don’t get me wrong- I love the colorful birds too.  It’s just that the understated groups hold a particular appeal for me, aided by the furtive nature of many such species, making it a special treat to get a good look.  (combine the hard-to-see with the glittering color and you get pittas- *mind explodes*)


Winter sparrow time in the states is obviously a joy, but my real passion is traveling to new countries to see birds- especially to the tropics.  My first real tropical birding experience occurred when I visited eastern Ecuador as a graduate student scouting a potential field site.  The colorful toucans, tanagers, and trogons were of course fabulous, but I found it particularly thrilling to try to identify, from fleeting glimpses, the hundreds of brown or gray understory species that crossed my path.  I have visited an additional three continents since then, and the Amazon rainforest continues to hold a special place in my heart- although the rainforest of southern Thailand was similarly evocative, especially when I realized that the multitude of babbler species (you got it, a diverse group of brown birds) were so reminiscent of my all-time favorite bird group, the antbirds.

Dot-backed antbird: a study in black and white and polka dots.

So now you know a little bit about what interests me.  This blog is a space for me to share my birding adventures, both at home with the sparrows and abroad with the antbirds.