Local raptors receive international spotlight: Apple TV+ docuseries features Chicago’s Peregrine Falcons

Assistant producer Alice Marlow shares insight into “Earth at Night in Color” and how building lights pose an enormous threat to bird populations

Chicago’s avifauna is featured alongside lions in Africa and tarsiers in Indonesia in a new Apple TV+ wildlife docuseries, “Earth at Night in Color.” The “Wild Cities” episode opens on a stunning overhead image of Chicago accompanied by the narration of actor Tom Hiddleston: “Six hundred square kilometers of city lights, a maze of concrete and canyons.” Chicago’s 10 pairs of downtown Peregrine Falcons receive the spotlight as they hunt for spring migrants making their way through the city. The episode also follows along with Annette Prince of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors as she collects injured and dead birds on her morning rounds. Assistant Producer Alice Marlow visited Chicago twice to scout for locations and helped shape the story. She joined me for a conversation recently from Bristol, England.

Bob Dolgan: Why does this series stand out from other wildlife films?

Alice Marlow: I’ve never appreciated that there’s a massive hole in research for the nocturnal lives of wildlife. This film really puts the spotlight on it. There’s quite a big gap in research and it could lead to lots of better learning of how to conserve animals and how we are impacting on animals. For example with the “Cities” episode, it was theorized that the peregrines used the city lights to their benefit, which is good for peregrines but probably pretty bad for the poor birds trying to migrate at night. Not only could they get picked off by a peregrine, but they could smash into buildings because they get dazzled and confused.

BD: How did the Chicago episode come together?

AM: Early in production I went and did a recce [a trip to check if the story was viable] for a few stories that we really wanted to do that were quite ambitious. We found loads of cool stories in the cities of North America. We did a recce to go and suss them out and see how hard they would be, how achievable they would be. I came to Chicago and met up with Mary Hennen of the Field Museum. She pointed out a few of the hotspots for peregrines and things. And explained how she knew the nesting areas and things like that. She was really crucial and knew a lot of the building managers to get access to buildings. Because it was so ambitious we were trying to build up our luck, knowing where the peregrines were but also knowing there was this incredible migration highway going over Chicago. We knew peregrines would be hunting at night, so we had to build up our chances as much as we could. We filmed the peregrine sequence in late April through mid-May 2019, and I did my recce in December 2018.

BD: What is something people could take away from the series? What can people do? Sometimes it feels overwhelming with all the threats birds face.

AM: We featured the lights out movement and how buildings switching off their lights makes a big difference. And that’s a fairly simple and easy thing to do. So if you work in a big skyscraper or a big tall building, or live in one, it’s just speaking to your building management and asking that they turn off the big, grand lights outside, or making sure you close the curtains. It only needs to be during spring and fall migrations. 

AM: I hope that our series kind of makes people appreciate wildlife and have a love for it, and want to respect it and give it its space and natural habitat. And to just go and enjoy it when you’re out and about. Actually there are peregrines in Bristol, and the other day I sat on a rooftop and could hear [a falcon] and it flew over us. It was so exciting. Just keeping eyes and ears open when walking because there’s wildlife all around you. All you have to do is look up in the sky and have a quick scan to see if there’s anything cool or exciting. Often it’s there, and we’re just not paying attention to it. 

“Earth At Night In Color” is produced by the BAFTA-nominated Offspring Films and executive produced by Alex Williamson and Isla Robertson. Apple TV+ is available on the Apple TV app in over 100 countries and regions.

Brief search for Brant is a successful wild goose chase

A Brant, an attractive goose of the high Arctic, has been hanging around at Montrose Harbor since Jan. 3. It’s the first Brant in Chicago since 2016, according to data from eBird.

I hadn’t seen the Brant until Friday morning, when I had a few minutes between errands. I first tried to drive into Lincoln Park via Montrose Avenue but turned around when I came to the locked gates. The park is still closed to vehicle traffic due to Covid, which is a puzzling situation that I’ve featured previously. So I parked west of Lake Shore Drive, on Marine Drive, and trekked in on foot.

Thankfully I quickly found a big flock of Canada Geese on the flanks of Cricket Hill. There I soon encountered a birder who turned out to be Geoff Williamson, a past winner of the American Birding Association’s Ludlow Griscom Award and founder of Third Coast Birding. Geoff also is featured in my film “Dodger,” confirming for me again that this really is a small world, or at least a small birding world.

Geoff quickly pointed me to the diminutive Branta, which munched on turf grass for about the next 10 minutes while I snapped away with my camera.

TWiB Notes

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds efforts that ensure water quality, restore wetlands and fight everything from aquatic invasive species to pollution. Earlier this month the measure quietly received additional funding through 2026 when lame duck President Donald Trump signed it into law. It was exciting news for anyone invested in the Great Lakes and the health of the watershed, particularly since it had been under threat of cuts as recently as last year…..This year’s Indiana Dunes Birding Festival is set for May 13-16 and will take place virtually and in-person. There’s quite a list of events and field trips planned…..I will be screening “Monty and Rose” next Sunday, Jan. 31, as part of an event with the Forest Preserves of Cook County and Sagawau Environmental Learning Center. Bird bander Leslie DeCourcey will be on hand for a discussion afterward. The event is free.

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