It didn’t take much to talk me out of winterizing my outboard motor. I called my friend Pete and told him that the Boss had said I had to take it to Buster but I was thinking of doing it myself, and he said, “Take it to Buster.” So I took it to Buster. So much for my burning desire to master the complexities of the internal combustion engine before it becomes obsolete.
The infamous Buster didn’t seem so bad to me, although you have to wonder, if a man is content to be professionally known as Buster, what his real name is. A hale and hearty fellow of around sixty, he wears reading glasses, which give him a professorial look as he stands at a counter behind a window festooned with marine paraphernalia: Mickey Mouse ears to flush your cooling system, emergency flares, multicolored rope for towing a children’s banana boat. Buster said it would take forty-five minutes to an hour to winterize the motor. “Put it right in the tank,” he instructed an employee named Wayne. I could wait, if I wanted, or I might like to go to a restaurant across the street, with a view of the bay (it would be cynical to imagine that Buster, like my car mechanic, also owns the waterfront restaurant), or drive up to Howard Beach. I remembered to ask how much it would cost, in case I had to go find a cash machine: $65. Not exorbitant. If I could kill time without spending money, I could pay out of my pocket and have two dollars to spare.
I decided to go to the Wildlife Refuge, where I walked down a trail I’d never been down before, between high reeds and birch trees. Two women with field guides and binoculars blocked my way. “Is there something up there?” I asked. “We think it’s a merlin,” one of them said. I couldn't see anything, so I went on ahead of them. At the East Pond were cormorants, Canada geese, swans, snow geese, gulls, flights of smaller birds, ducks, including some gorgeous green mallards. I got out my binoculars and watched a duck fishing, its butt bobbing in the water like an upended football with webbed feet; when it surfaced, I saw that it had a huge bill that came right out of its forehead. It seems funny to say that a duck has an “aquiline” nose, but that was the only way I could think of to describe it. The two women I’d passed on the trail came up behind me. I told them I had seen some kind of duck and tried to show them where it was, straight out in front of me, to the right of a piling. The woman to my far right made a derisive sound; she had a German accent. “Don’t be dismissive,” her companion said, and then to me, “Would you like to use my guide?” I declined. “Ah, you’re like me," she said. "You’d rather look around as long as you’re outside. I could stay here all day.” I agreed—plenty of time to look in books when you get home, and the pond was pretty. (Also, I can never figure out how those field guides are organized. I'd have spent a half hour on the flamingos.) The geese and swans had swum up to us, looking for handouts. The disgruntled German leafed through her guide.
I retraced my steps and took the other fork in the trail, to Big John’s Pond, where I’d been before. There is a blind, from which I once saw a whole pondful of what I have it on good authority were glossy ibis: prehistoric-looking crooked-necked long-beaked shorebirds. At first I saw nothing—well, foliage reflected in a shallow pond with some oil making rainbows at the edges. Then I saw a long-beaked brownish-gray bird with extraordinary long legs—a sandpiper?—stalking out to a mound of debris in the center of the pond. I got out my binoculars, hoping the zip of my backpack wouldn’t scare the bird away, and now on the mound I saw something black with white spots, like a gull’s tail. It turned out to be the head of a turtle. And on the other side of the mound was another turtle. I wanted to point them out to somebody, but there was no one with me in the blind or nearby on the trail. On the way back to the car, I ran into a couple who were too absorbed in each other to care about turtles, and then two more middle-aged ladies, one of whom fell behind the other and asked me, “How’s your memory? What are those . . .” and she indicated the many trees with branches full of yellow and orange and red berries. “Bittersweet?” I said. “That’s it! That’s what I was trying to think of!” she said. Hurray! I knew something.
I drove back to Buster’s, paid him and picked up my winterized outboard (it turns out that I do not need one of those Mickey Mouse ear contraptions to flush my cooling system; Buster said once a year at his place is enough), drove home, lugged the outboard into the bungalow, and stood it up properly in a corner. Later that night, I found myself reaching for the field guide to see if I could identify those birds and add them to my life list. The sandpiper might have been a willet or a dowitcher. There are a lot of different kinds of ducks. I don’t think this one was a coot, or an eider, or a shoveler. It might have been a bufflehead. Or a phalarope. All I can say for sure is that it was definitely some kind of duck.