Sunday, January 05, 2014

The Great Thick-billed Murre Chase

Like many good birding adventures, this one started with an Ontbirds post and alcohol. Jeremy was at Mark's apartment and someone had reported a Thick-billed Murre at a downtown harbour in Kingston. This was one of few modern records for the species; a mega-rarity. And it sounded reliable. Reading the post, they poured another rum and coke, liberal on the rum, conservative on the coke.

"So, what do you think? Should we go?" Jeremy slurred, laughing in case Mark thought it was a stupid idea and Jeremy could pass it off as a joke.

Mark opened Google maps and calculated the time it would take them to drive to Kingston. Less than 3 hours. It was not a tough decision. Both of them had traveled further distances for rarities in the past. They would leave early in the morning and get to Kingston for a reasonable hour, get the murre and then birdwatch at various locations on the drive back to Toronto.

They poured another drink and celebrated the decision.


Jeremy heard his phone's alarm going off. He groaned and scraped his eyes open, a small part of him wishing the murre hadn't shown up so he could sleep in. He managed to get up anyway. After a quick breakfast and packing all the necessities of the day into the car, Mark and Jeremy began the drive to Kingston. There were reports of icy road conditions on route to their destination but they ignored the reports. When a Thick-billed Murre shows up in Ontario, you don't worry about ice or accidents. You get in your car and drive.

They were about an hour away from Kingston when brake lights appeared before them on the 401.

"Shit," Mark said.

"Ya," Jeremy replied.

It was bad. An accident of some sort had happened on the highway ahead, too far away to see. People started getting out of their cars and discussing how long the wait might be. Ten minutes passed. Half an hour passed. An hour passed. Mark tried to find any information online about the accident. There was nothing. They listened to and sang along with Disney songs to pass the time. Jeremy proudly knew most of the words to Meg's song in Hercules.

After an hour and a half, Jeremy was shifting frantically in his seat and finally cracked. "We can't wait any longer!" he screamed.

"Well, there's not much we can do," Mark, the more rational of the two, replied, "we're stuck here until they clear up the accident."

Jeremy rolled his eyes. "I have an idea."

"What are you talking about?"

"Here's the plan. You're going to drive on the median past all this mess and we're gonna get that stupid murre."

"Have you lost your mind?"

"Don't you get tired of asking me that question?"

"Even if we did get up to the front of this traffic jam, the cops will stop us. We'll get a ticket."

Jeremy shrugged. "We won't get a ticket if the cops don't catch us."

Marks eyes widened into comedic circles. "You really have lost your mind."

"Ok, how about this. If we get a ticket, I'll pay for some of it."

Mark's face darkened. "Some of it?"

"Oh alright, I'll pay for the ticket," Jeremy sighed, fingers crossed behind his back.

"Ok, let's say we did try driving on the shoulder to get around...I like the idea but shouldn't we at least wait a few more minutes just to see if..."

But Jeremy's mind was made up. He reached down, grabbed the stick and jerked it into gear, reached his foot over and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The car jerked forward and slammed into the car in front of them.

"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU THINKING?!" Mark screamed, putting the car in reverse.

"Sorry, my foot slipped," Jeremy explained and once again pressed his foot onto the gas. The car lurched backwards and slammed into the car behind them. "Roops," Jeremy said.

"Oh god," Mark moaned as he saw the size of the man getting out the car they just rear-ended. He looked in the rearview mirror. Another even larger man was getting out of the car they backed into. The man was punching his open hand with the other, his nose scrunched up in rage. Mark put the car back into drive and pulled out from the highway onto the left shoulder but didn't pull out far enough. As he passed the car in front, the man had to step back to avoid getting hit and Mark's bumper came into full contact with the open door, breaking it clear off and sending it sailing to the side of the road.

"We're dead!" Mark cried as he started to speed along the median of the 401.

Jeremy gripped the door handle and started to take fast breaths. "Don't you think we're going just a bit too fast?" he asked looking at the slick ice on the median.

"Hey, you got us into this mess. If we're going to get past the cops we need to be going fast!"

They finally saw the end of the traffic jam and the red and blue flashing lights of multiple police cars. Mark pushed his foot down on the gas even harder and they floored it past a cop car on the side of the road, narrowly missing an officer who was walking back to his car. Chaos broke out. Jeremy looked in the right-hand mirror and saw multiple officers running to their cars to begin the chase. He saw one get on her radio to call more officers. Ahead of Mark and Jeremy was open road.

"We did it! You rock, Mark!"

"Don't celebrate yet. We have to get off the 401."

Up ahead Mark saw an exit on the highway and decided to take it. He might be able to get out of sight of the oncoming police that way. He skidded and slid around the curve of the exit and as they came around the turn, they saw that this was going to get dangerous. The road had two lanes of traffic and it was busy. Mark and Jeremy both screamed as their car skidded onto the middle of the road and multiple cars honked and began sliding in all directions as they applied their brakes on the icy surface. One car in front of them began to slide back and forth and suddenly banked hard to the right and flipped over onto the road, spinning around on its roof. Mark pulled the steering wheel hard to the left to avoid the upside-down car and ran into another vehicle in the left lane. The vehicle swerved and entered oncoming traffic. Multiple vehicles were now careening into Mark's lane and he was forced to swerve several times to narrowly miss them.

"Look out!" Jeremy screamed. Ahead, a car-carrying semi had lost control (the driver likely distracted by what was going on in the rearview mirror) and was beginning to tip over. The straps and cables holding the cars in place were snapping and the empty cars on top of the trailer fell off onto the road causing multiple accidents at once. Mark managed to drive out of the way of a falling car that smashed right behind his own vehicle, missing by inches. It landed on its side in front of another semi that swerved and came to a stop across the highway, blocking all oncoming traffic. They heard multiple cars running into the side of the truck's trailer. They continued driving.

"Get my phone out and recalculate the GPS to where we have to get to," Mark said.

"Let me change the music first," Jeremy said, "I'm tired of listening to Disney songs." As he was flipping through Mark's playlist, he heard Mark suck in a breath. He looked up and saw that a police barrier had already been made blocking traffic both ways on the road ahead. A semi was already stopped next to the police cars.

"Dammit!" Mark cried. "What should we do?" He continued to drive straight at the road block.

"Is there some way you can U-turn and drive the other way?" Jeremy asked.

"This isn't the movies, you idiot! We need to somehow ramp over the blockade."

Jeremy looked over with concern, ready to ask his friend if he'd lost his mind but was distracted by the roar of a helicopter flying overhead. "Jesus Murphy! They've deployed a police helicopter! Cool!!" They continued to drive full speed toward the barrier. "Umm, I really think you should slow down," Jeremy said nervously. Mark sped up. "Please slow down...?" They were approaching too fast.


Mark slammed on the brakes and the car started to skid out of control, careening toward the police who were getting into their vehicles to avoid the impending collision. Mark and Jeremy braced themselves for impact. Mark's car almost came to a full stop in time but still rammed into the side of the semi truck that was pulled over in front of the barrier.

"What do we do?" Mark asked taking the phone away from Jeremy who had gone back to looking through the music playlist. 

Jeremy snapped back into action. "We need to get on top of the semi," he said, opening his door.

"On top of the semi?? What on earth for?!"

"Just trust me. I have an idea."

Jeremy quickly found his binoculars in the back seat and put them on. They got out and started to climb up onto the top of Mark's car. Jeremy could hear the police officers opening their cars and getting out. They would be around the side of the semi in mere seconds ready to handcuff them and take them to jail.

Jeremy was the first to jump. He pushed off the roof of the car and grasped the top of the semi trailer, pulling the rest of his body up over the side. He reached down and grabbed Mark's hand. He dragged him up the side of the transport until they were both on top, breathing heavily. They looked down at the officers who had just ran to the side of the truck.

"Come down from there before anyone else gets hurt."

"We're very sorry," Jeremy lied, "now, I know this looks bad but I'm sure we can all just be reasonable here and forget any of this ever happened."

Mark looked over at Jeremy, his jaw falling to the semi's roof. "That was your plan?"

Jeremy shrugged.

Mark decided honesty was the best way to get them into less trouble. "We're on our way to see a Thick-billed Murre."

The officer looked over at her partner with a confused look and mouthed the words 'thick-billed murre?' Her partner shrugged.

"Please listen," Mark continued, "it's a rare bird. We really want to get it for our Ontario lists. Maybe we could arrange some deal for you to drive us to see it...?"

The officer raised her gun and fired off a warning shot that whizzed by Mark's head.

"I see. Is that a no then...?"

While this conversation was taking place, Jeremy watched the police helicopter that had flown over them before. It was now banking and turning toward the blockade, probably for a better shot. It was flying toward them at an angle to the road. He calculated the height of the chopper and if it would fly close enough to the transport truck. He had no idea why it would fly over so low but he wasn't going to question his luck. It might just work. There would only be one chance.

"Grab my legs and hold on," Jeremy whispered.

"Is this really a good time for that?" Mark asked.

The helicopter was nearly over them.


Jeremy bent his knees and pushed off the edge of the truck trailer's surface with all his might as Mark reached out and grabbed his legs. Reaching both hands as high as he could, Jeremy thought he hadn't pushed off hard enough, but suddenly felt the painful impact of his hands on the helicopter's landing skids. His palms stung in the cold air but he held on tightly. The helicopter jerked to the side with the added weight of the two men before balancing out and continuing to fly out away from the highway. The cops threw off their hats and jumped up and down on top of them while shaking their fists. 

Mark and Jeremy were airborne.


Jeremy could hear Mark yelling below him but couldn't make it out over the thundering helicopter blades.

Then he realized what Mark was trying to yell. The helicopter was already circling back toward the blockade, no doubt to drop its extra human cargo into the hands of the waiting police force. Jeremy looked down and noticed that they were going to fly over a pond that was right next to the road past a stand of trees. It was going to be a cold swim but the only other choice was jail time. And they wouldn't see the Thick-billed Murre in jail.

Sensing Jeremy's plan, Mark started to yell and thrash his legs in protest.

"On the count of three!" Jeremy yelled downwards.

"No!" Mark screamed.


"Are you out of your mind??"


They were over the pond now.

"Please no..." Mark whimpered.


Jeremy let go and he and Mark began their descent toward the pond below. But Jeremy hadn't thought his plan through as well as he should have. Because as they began their fall he realized that the water below wasn't water at all. The pond was frozen over.


Mark landed with a painful thud on his side. He heard a sickening smack next to him where Jeremy landed.

Mark groaned and got up slowly. He started by pushing himself onto his hands and knees. He stopped when he heard a loud crack. The ice was thinner than it looked. Below his hands and knees he saw small fractures in the ice spiderweb out in all directions with each new movement.

"Oh god," he whispered, "we have to get off this ice now!" Jeremy only moaned but didn't move. He had a goose egg already forming above his right eye and a nasty gash on his forehead that was bleeding profusely.

Daring to stand up on both feet, Mark penguin-walked over to Jeremy and reached down to grab the hood of his jacket. Cursing the dead weight, he pulled Jeremy closer to the edge of the pond, the surface now shifting under them. Just as they reached the edge, he saw two police officers burst through the treeline at the opposite end of the pond. They began to run across the ice toward the two fugitives. Mark started to shake Jeremy desperately, trying to wake him up. The police were a quarter of the way across. Halfway across. They both slipped and fell. They got up. They were three quarters of the way across. Mark and Jeremy were about to be caught.

But just as he had given up, Mark heard a loud crack come from the pond and suddenly the ice gave way beneath the two officers. They thrashed and cursed in the water trying to get a hold on the slippery edge of the ice.

"Are we at the Thick-billed Murre yet?" Jeremy muttered, slowly waking up. Blood had pooled in his right eye and it was swelling shut.

"Can you get up? We have to get out of here before those police find a way out of the water."

With some effort, Jeremy got up shakily. He checked his binoculars to see if they had withstood the fall. "I think they'll be ok."

They started to run through a woodlot abutting the pond but it was a slow run. The forest was full of thorn bushes and they tripped over every fallen log hidden in the snow.

Finally they came to an opening. It was someone's backyard. There was a man cutting logs of wood with a chainsaw. His wife was carrying the logs into a shed. Through his one good eye, Jeremy saw a snowmobile sitting on the other side of the shed and motioned to Mark. It was their ticket to the murre.

They crept from tree to tree along the back of the yard.

"Have you ever driven a snowmobile before?" Jeremy whispered between the loud grind of the chainsaw cutting through a branch.

"No," Mark replied...too loudly. The man had turned off the chainsaw just as Mark had answered. He turned. They were caught.

Without thinking, Mark pulled Jeremy across the yard in full view and they both jumped onto the snowmobile. 

"What the hell? Get off mah snowmobiler!" the man yelled, yanking the chainsaw's starter. It roared into life and the man started to run towards them.

"Holy moly! He's crazy! Start it!!!" Jeremy cried desperately, pushing forward and bumping Mark's hand away from the ignition. The chainsaw was approaching alarmingly fast.

"Give me room!" Mark pushed Jeremy back and with shaky hands found the ignition. He turned it hard.

Nothing happened. 


Jeremy realized they had two choices. Either they ditch the snowmobile and make a run for it, or he gets rid of his binoculars. Making a run for it means losing the snowmobile and losing valuable time to get to the Thick-billed Murre. The choice was easy. Removing the binoculars from around his neck, he grabbed them tightly in his hand and threw as hard as he could in the direction of the man running toward him. They flew in a high arc over the man's head toward the shed just as his wife came out to investigate what all the shouting was about. The binoculars connected with a sickening thwack into the woman's nose. White snow was sprayed with blood. The man dropped the chainsaw and ran over to his wife who was writhing and cursing on the ground.

With another turn of the ignition, the snowmobile roared into life and Mark and Jeremy were speeding across the lawn. Mark drove the snowmobile around the house and across the front lawn, dodging a chrome ball and sending pink flamingo ornaments half-buried in snow flying in every direction.

They pulled out onto the road and floored it toward Kingston.

"We can't take this thing all the way," Mark shouted, taking his phone out to look at Google Maps.

"You have a better idea?"

"We need to steal a car."

"Steal a...? Really?"

"We've already probably killed multiple people and now we've stolen this snowmobile. What difference does it make."

"Ok. Over there!" They saw an elderly man getting into his truck at a house they were approaching. They drove the snowmobile into the man's lane and the man rolled his window down.

"What can I help you two boys with today?" the man asked with a friendly smile on his wrinkled face. He looked back at Jeremy's bloodied, puffy face and his smile dropped. "Oh my...that's a nasty gash you got there, fella!"

Mark ran up to the truck and wrenched the door open. He grabbed the man by the neck of his jacket and threw him out of the truck. Jeremy rushed to the passenger side and got in.

"We're really sorry!" Mark called back to the man now laying face down on the ground.

They were on their way to the murre.


Meanwhile, not long after Jeremy and Mark had driven off the 401 and the police chase began, the highway was cleared and other birders that were caught in the traffic jam made their way to Kingston. The weather had improved and the birders drove leisurely to their destination. They parked near where the directions posted on Ontbirds indicated and walked down to the harbour. Within minutes they saw the Thick-billed Murre, close to shore in the harbour and providing spectacular photo opportunities. The birders were pleased.

An hour passed and in that time, a few more birders had arrived and they were all now standing next to the railing at the harbour chatting and observing the activity of the murre. It was then that one of the birders knitted their brow and asked the others if they heard something. The group turned and saw a truck barreling down the street leading directly to the harbour. It was driving straight towards them at an alarming speed without any signs of slowing.  

The group of birders scattered in all directions out of the way of the oncoming truck. It flew past them, narrowly missing as they leaped out of the way. The truck smashed through the metal railing and plunged into the frigid waters of the harbour.


Jeremy was shocked at how quickly water began flooding into the vehicle. Freezing cold water was bubbling up past his knees within seconds.

"We have to smash out the back window!" Mark cried, fumbling with his seat belt. They were already too deep to get the doors open.

Jeremy was out of his seat belt and already thigh-deep in water. He twisted his body around to face the back window of the truck. He tightened his hand into a fist, brought his arm back and with all his might punched the glass.

His hand thudded against the window. Jeremy cried out in pain and grabbed his hand. He had broken half of his fingers and fresh blood was now flowing from his knuckles.

Mark finally got his seat belt unclasped. The water was now up to their chests and the truck was still sinking fast. Not able to think of anything else with so little time remaining, Mark grabbed Jeremy's head and smashed it against the back window. A large crack was made but the window remained intact. Water had now reached their necks and was rising fast. The water was so cold it was difficult to take breaths. Mark struggled to take one last morsel of air into his chest.

Then they were completely underwater.


Mark's lungs were burning for air and the pain of the cold water was overwhelming. His skin felt like it was being pierced by thousands of tiny frozen needles. Mark pushed through the torment with one thought on his mind. They still needed to see the Thick-billed Murre.

Through the murky water he saw Jeremy sinking to the bottom of the truck, unconscious. He reached through the water and grabbed the hood of Jeremy's jacket, pulling him back towards the back window. With the dwindling energy he had left, he once again grabbed Jeremy's skull and used it as a battering ram against the glass. This time it worked. The glass shattered and left a hole big enough to pull himself through. Mark thrashed through the back window cutting his arms on the glass as he pulled through. He got out and planted his feet onto the roof of the truck and dragged Jeremy out behind him.

The second strike against the window had knocked Jeremy back into consciousness. He emerged from the water alongside Mark, sputtering for air. They swam out of the way of the sinking truck. As they treaded water, they watched the back end of the elderly man's vehicle finally sink under the surface, a few bubbles rising up. Then, silence. They turned toward the group of birders, who were all standing still and staring with their mouths dropped open.

"Is the murre still here?" Mark called out.

A woman at the side of the group slowly raised her finger and pointed to their left, her mouth still stuck in the same expression of shock.

Mark looked toward the direction of the finger. "Jeremy, look," he said, motioning. "The Thick-billed Murre."

Jeremy turned his head and saw the bird. It was swimming about ten feet away from them in the water. "It's beautiful," Jeremy said through chattering teeth.

"Yes, it is," Mark agreed, lips turning blue.

They treaded water for a few moments, enjoying the Ontario lifer.

Jeremy finally broke the silence. "So I guess this is the end then. The police will no doubt be here soon to lock us up. I hope they have vegetarian options in jail."

"Well, actually, we can't give up just yet. Before we lost our brakes and drove into the harbour, I managed to check Ontbirds. There's an Anna's Hummingbird coming to a feeder near Thunder Bay."

"You wanna go for it?" Jeremy asked

"Hell yeah," Mark replied.

"Awesome. We'll need a car."

"Then we'll steal another one." They heard the sound of a distant siren.

"Let's not waste any more time then."

And without looking back at the Thick-billed Murre, Jeremy and Mark started to swim toward the shore.