What’s that Terry Dactil doing up there, dad?
And at first sight you can forgive a dinosaur-mad kid for mistaking a heron for a pterodactyl.
But we’re about 150m years out of step. This is Blackpool 2012. Not Late Jurassic Europe.
And pterodactyls would be in for slim pickings at Stanley Park – unless prepared to change there carnivores diet to tucking into bread and the occasional dropped ice cream.
The herons have it covered – and then some.
Blackpool boasts the biggest breeding heronry in the North of England.
There are 30-35 breeding pairs here – aloft in those sycamore, willow and, in the lower levels, elder trees on what’s become known as heron island.
It is itself a small but significant site of scientific interest – not to be confused with Marton Mere over the road – but big news in the birding world and as such protected.
Herons aren’t endangered but their sheer beauty and wing span makes them a real head turner. Their fishing skills win them a bad press too – but what can you expect if you don’t cover your koi carp pool or plonk a plastic heron on guard there?
In fact any small creature is up for grabs – carried off to that high rise and impossibly teeteringly tall nest faster than you can say “did you see saurus?”
Frogs and amphibians, mice and other rodents, ducklings, fish – anything that croaks or squeaks or quacks or splashes is on the menu for herons with hungry babies to feed.
Each pair generally produces three to four blue green eggs from March to July.
In theory that could be up to 120 new herons at this historic municipal park. In reality only one baby heron is likely to make it from each brood. The young rely on parents for warmth, food and protection, and have to avoid getting booted out by bigger siblings.
Those who make the descent early won’t survive as herons aren’t ground feeders. The puny plummet to their doom. It’s win-win for foxes and other predators. Even the most urbane fox has figured out he can pad across the floating reed bed to heron island without getting paws wet. By 10 weeks baby herons are ready to make their own way in the world, The surprisingly well stocked lake offers plenty of fish _ but herons have a two mile catchment area.
We’re taking a closer look at this hidden wonder of the park with ranger Martin Day, whose father was a gamekeeper. “You can’t fail but love the countryside when you have that kind of upbringing even though I went on a different path to my dad,” he adds.
“My dad taught me to appreciate and respect nature,” Martin admits. He’s on the same path with his own young sons.
The RSPB reckons there are about 14,000 nests in the UK for breeding grey heron it puts the size of the local colony – in one small pocket of the park – in perspective.
“It really is the largest breeding heronry in the North of England,” says Martin. “The birds have been here for at least three to four years that I know of. Sometimes there’s a population explosion or a decrease but generally it’s around this level, 30-35 pairs.”
Herons are unmistakeable: tall, long legs, long beak, black tuft, grey, black and white feathering. They stand with necks stretched out, looking for food, or hunched with necks bent over their chest. Their flight is slow, graceful, vast wings curved inwards, legs trailing behind. Bitterns are in the same family – and have been spotted at Marton Mere, a site of special scientific interest. It saves birdspotters trekking out to the RSPB’s Leighton Moss reserve to see and hear bittern in the reedbeds there.
Once bittern, twice shy for the thickset shorter legged heron, the bittern, is more secretive than the leggy squawker aloft. While bitterns boom, herons croak when nesting, squawk in flight. Bittern breeding males were down to 75 at the last count nationally, definitely endangered.
Martin says there’s much more to the park. “We are privileged to have this diversity on our doorstep. People travel miles to visit centres when they could see it all for free here. We have tawny owls, bats, swifts and swallows, goldcrest, treecreepers, nuthatch, mute swans, woodpeckers, buzzards and more.”
There’s also the legacy of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze cast-offs – tiny turtles dumped in the boating lake in the ‘80s were relocated to deeper depths of the lake and thrived. Now the size of dinner plates they can regularly be seen sunning themselves in the shallows.
Walkers for health in Y-Active ranks rate the park Blackpool’s best walk. The Fylde Coast YMCA-run GP referral scheme features regular walks in the park under the watchful eye of the scheme’s referral officer Keith Potter.
The walks generally last around 45 minutes and recruits such as Sylvia Wearden, Joan Blakeborough, Kay Lee and Jean Smith agree times flies when you’re bird watching while walking.
But while the heronry is the highlight – the surprise star of Stanley Park is a quackers mallard which has nested 9ft high in a tree near the boating lake to avoid ground predators. Unusual but by no means rare.
Ranger Martin points out “I’ve never seen her land there, although it can’t be dignified, but it should keep the ducklings safe. It’s a long way down though.”
jacqui.morley@ blackpoolgazette or tweet her @jacquimorley