Hunting Dragons

Off in the distance, mist swirls trancelike atop an ephemeral lake. Underfoot, the conspicuously intricate patterns of thousands of tiny spider webs, saturated by a heavy dew cling onto every conceivable blade of grass.

This is dragon country. No, not Puff the Magic Dragon, the fire-breathing creature of ancient legend, rather a dragon which although is of real flesh and blood, is almost as elusive as it mythological namesake.

I am traipsing through a travelling stock reserve on the outskirts of Cooma in search of grassland earless dragons (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla), one of the most endangered reptiles in Australia and the native temperate grasslands of the Monaro are one of their last bastions.

Despite their name, these cute little critters aren't without ears, they're just not as noticeable as on most animals. ''Tympanum is latin for eardrum and cryptis is latin for hidden; hence earless dragon,'' explains Tim McGrath who is in the final throes of his masters in applied science at the University of Canberra's Institute of Applied Ecology (IAE), and who has invited me on along to his last field survey in search of these cute chocolate brown critters.

''Decades ago farmers had dragons literally crawling on their feet, however, finding a dragon these days is like finding gold,'' explains McGrath, who due to his passion for the threatened reptile, goes by the nick-name of the Dragon Hunter. And why not? If your columnist can go by the name ''Yowie Man'', why can't Tim adopt the moniker of 'Dragon Hunter'! Heck, he's even got the Akubra thing going.

Tim crouches down and pulls back one of the thousands of basketball-sized basalt rocks that are scattered through the grass of this reserve to reveal a small burrow not much bigger than your finger.

''The dragons like to use these little burrows, sometimes old wolf spider burrows like this one. Usually they are curled up and you can just see them in the entrance of the burrow.

My instructions are simple. ''Turn as many rocks as you can and if you see something curled up in a burrow, and it's not a spider, let me know.''

The search beings in earnest. After turning the first 10 rocks, my back is already starting to ache. I stop to take some photos. Well at least that's my excuse.

Thankfully for the Dragon Hunter, I'm not his only rock turner today. Also busily looking under rocks is Matt Young, a research assistant at the IAE. His count is already at 150-odd rocks and he's only been going about 20 minutes. Also enthusiastically turning rocks as if there might be a $100 note hiding under each one is Emma Carlson - she's got a vested interest in us finding as many dragons as possible for she's an honours student looking into the genetics of the species.

So while I compare Akubras with the Dragon Hunter (by the way, we agree it's time for me consider upgrading), Matt and Emma continue to turn rock after rock after rock. Sadly, so far, without luck.

As if turning rocks isn't laborious enough, Tim is also recording the number of rocks at each site until the first dragon is found. It's like counting sheep to get to sleep, only the end point here is a sore back (and the risk of a hungry wolf spider chomping down on your index finger) rather than some welcome zzzzs.

It's hard yakka, but while turning my 76th rock, I'm rewarded - something slithers underneath. As soon as I make eye contact, it stops moving. It lies completely still, as if stunned by my astonished gaze.

My heart beats. Have I found the first dragon for the day? Tim scurries over, only to almost immediately shake his head in disappointment. ''It's an easy mistake for beginners; it's an eastern ctenotus, which are very common in these parts,'' he says.

I guess it's akin to a novice fossicker finding fools gold. At least my false alarm allows me to momentarily rest my crunching vertebrae for a minute or two before the count continues. Matt's approaching 400 rocks now, Emma is not far behind and I'm already trying to dream up an excuse so I can go home.

An hour passes. Then another. The morning mist has lifted to reveal a vast treeless plain. You can see miles in every direction. ''We need to turn as many of them as we can'' deadpans Tim pointing to the sun reflecting off thousands of rocks scattered in the paddocks ahead. This is going to be one long day.

As we enter our third dragon-less hour, even our chat dries up as we settle into the monotony of turning over, then carefully replacing (to minimise disturbance of the habitat for other fauna and flora which call these grasslands home) rock after rock. There are a couple more false alarms, including a venomous lowland copperhead which we inadvertently disturb from its winter slumber (and here I was worried about wolf spiders)! Heck, searching for the proverbial in a haystack would be easier than this. At least you wouldn't have to return every messed-up piece of straw where you found it.

Suddenly, the silence is broken. ''I've got one!'' yelps Tim with almost as much relief as glee. We all scamper over.

''He wasn't in the burrow, so he was probably basking in the sun, heard our footsteps and jumped under the rock to seek refuge,'' Tim says, holding him up for us all to admire.

Resplendent with a gold breeding flush under his chin, which Tim explains is possibly ''a sign that he is probably trying to attract a female''. Pity he has two Akubra-clad blokes gawking at him.

Tim pulls out his field kit, records the dragon's vital measurements, takes a GPS reading and also does a vegetation survey of the area around the rock. Apart from determining the distribution of the species, Tim is also hoping his research will result in a better understanding of the dragon's habitat. He replaces the rock and returns the dragon to its den.

It's almost midday now, I've turned about 500 rocks. Although I was planning to stay for most of the day, my back decides I've had enough. I set my alarm on my phone for two minutes' time. When it goes off I pretend it's a call from Mrs Yowie Man ordering me home for a mini-emergency.

I bid farewell to Tim and his dynamic rock-turning duo (they're both approaching 1000 rocks now), and hobble across the grassy paddock, and as I undo the gate to the reserve, I'm not sure what creaks more - my spine or the rusty old gate.

Two days later and still feeling guilty about my early exit from his survey, I call Tim to offer him dinner and to find out how his three-day survey unfolded. He suggests we meet at his brother's noshery, Trev's @ Dickson, where he arrives looking a little worse for wear, but impressively still in his Akubra.

Tim reports an unseasonable snow storm on the third day provided a lucky break. ''It's easier to find dragons in the colder weather for they seek shelter under rocks rather than being out and about sunning themselves or looking for a mate,'' Tim says, adding, ''we ended up with five dragons over the three days.''

I soon discover why Tim suggested his brother's restaurant - the menu features a pizza named ''Dragon Hunter''. ''It's a bit hot, like a dragon breathes fire,'' warns Trev who named the pizza in his brother's honour. I can't resist, besides, after three days exposed to the elements on the Monaro, Tim looks like he needs a good feed, so I order three Dragon Hunters.

The first six slices hardly touch the sides of Tim's mouth, which is probably a good thing as topped with a more than ample layer of chilli and jalapenos, it's got a bit of a zing to it. He eventually breaks from his pizza eating frenzy to reflect on the outlook for his beloved dragon. ''Given the history of decline, recent population crashes and the current state of our region's grasslands there is every possibility this reptile could become extinct in the very near future,'' says Tim who hopes his research ''will help provide information essential for future management and recovery of the dragon''.

Tim also reckons the earless dragon ought to become an icon of our region.''Tasmania has the Tassie devil, Queensland has the cassowary, Western Australia the numbat, and in the ACT and surrounds, we have the endangered grassland earless dragon,'' Tim says proudly as he puts away another piece of his personalised pizza.

I get the feeling that while Tim McGrath remains its champion, his cherished earless dragon won't run out of puff for sometime yet.

Fact File

Earless Dragons: If you think you’ve spotted a grassland earless dragon, Tim McGrath, would love to hear from you. Email:

Rock on:  This was the final survey for Tim’s three years of field work in which he turned 63236 rocks to find just 45 earless dragons.

Did You Know? The grassland earless dragons is extremely vulnerable to extinction partly due to its unique life history; it’s known to breed usually only once and live for only a year, laying a clutch of around 6-7 eggs in the top surface of the soil. This means droughts, unsympathetic grazing regimes and the plough of a tractor pose a serious threat to the future generations.

Dragon Hunter Pizza: Trev’s @ Dickson. 20 Challis St, Dickson. Ph: 6257 2355. Twelve inch lip-smacking pizzas stacked with enough chorizo, red peppers, bocconcini, chilli, smoked paprika and jalapenos to make you breathe fire.$19.