The search for a Water Dragon in Sydney

My mission was simple; to find and photograph the Eastern Water Dragon. I was on a short trip to Sydney, Australia. My camera was packed, but so was my schedule. I did not have much free time. I figured that I had about 5 hours to find and photograph the stocky urban reptile. Having lived in Sydney for a couple of years, I had seen the chunky little lizard before, but I had fallen in love with them, and wanted a few decent shots.

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An Eastern Water Dragon the I photographed in New South Wales in 2013

I knew where to go to give myself a good chance of a dragon shot; the northern suburb of Manly. Manly is famous for its spectacular beach and surfing culture. It is less well known for its resident reptile population. But I had seen the dragons in this area in the past, and I knew it was my best hope. I took the 30 minute journey on the early ferry from Sydney’s Circular Quay to Manly Cove. My plan was to cross the town and follow the coastal path to Shelly Beach and climb the steps towards the North Head.

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I followed the highlighted route from the Manly ferry terminal to Shelly Beach and on to the North Head

I checked the walls and the earthen banks as I walked the path between Manly Beach and Shelly Beach. The only creatures that I spotted were the tiny bronze sculptures of Australian animals that are dotted along the wall. A surprise awaited me on secluded little Shelly Beach. A small group of Australian Bush turkeys scratched the sand at the edge of the beach. I stopped to watch them while I drank a coffee. I laughed as I watched a turkey raiding a bag for snacks while the bag owner went for a dip in the ocean.

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An Australian Bush Turkey on Shelly Beach

I contemplated sticking with the turkeys and writing a blog about them, but decided that I was here for the dragons, so I climbed the steps from the beach towards the North Head. I came to a sign highlighting Manly conservation area. The sign was emblazoned with a large image of an Eastern Water Dragon. My optimism was rising!

I studied the sandstone rocks that sprouted from the bushes. It was a damp overcast morning and nothing was moving. I walked to the craggy cliffs that bite the foaming Pacific below. Leaning on the guardrail I saw movement! Something was crouched behind a rock. This must be my lizard! I waited, camera at the ready, but I was at the wrong angle. I trotted the next section of guardrail which offered a better angle. I lifted my camera and screwed out the zoom to 500 mm. There it was! First a scaly tail, follow the tail up to one large yellow claw sticking out of white feathery trousers…

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A Nankeen Kestrel munches on a baby water dragon

My first dragon of the day was a very dead dragon, being plucked at in the talons of a Nankeen kestrel that was hunting along the wall.

I walked a little further along the cliff when something caught my eye on an overhanging rock. Here was my first living dragon of the day. It was too far away to get the shots that i wanted, but it was magnificent. I could see the tiger-stripe tail and the spiky crest that ran along its back. I could see its black, star speckled trousers and the mascara swipe running from its eye to its shoulder.

It was laying with its belly tight to the rock, to soak up any splashes of heat from the occasional early sun. I took some photographs, but there was no way for me to get any closer so I watched for a while before moving on.

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The first living Eastern Water Dragon of the day

I couldn’t find anymore dragons in the area, so I decided to follow the walking trail around the North Head. The trail takes me high on to the sandstone head, through windswept scrub land. In areas where the trail is tight bordered by bushes I bobbed and weaved to avoid the webs of the stunning Golden Orb Weaving spiders. The diamond eyes of the twittering New Holland Honeyeaters studied me from the tops of dried scrub.

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New Holland Honeyeaters

By the time I made it to the top of the head I still hadn’t seen another lizard. I reached Bella Vista cafe and bought a coffee. More Bush turkeys pecked around the cafe’s outside seating, searching for crumbs. I crossed the road to look over the Head toward the Sydney skyline.

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An Eastern Water Dragon hotspot

As I stood there surveying the skyline, I looked down and there on a sun-bleached sandstone rock was a large dragon looking back at me. I fired off some shots and lowered my camera when I noticed that the other rocks in the area also had dragons of their own. Clearly, I had stumbled on the dragon’s den!

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For a lizard that hangs around the edges of towns, the Eastern Water Dragon is a large reptile. Including its long tail, the adult male grows up to 3 feet long (1 meter). Manly and the North Head are pretty dry environments. There certainly isn’t a lot of fresh water that I know of. Usually these dragons are found around fresh water streams, ponds and even garden ponds. They feed on a mixed diet of insects, fruits and berries.

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I took the photographs that I wanted and, checking the time, realised that I had to get back to Sydney and had a long walk back to the ferry. I set off back across the Head as a mist of rain started to fall. I made it back to Shelly Beach and tucked myself under some overhanging trees. While I stayed there waiting for the rain to slow I made my way to a group of rocks to sit on.

There, on top of the rock pile was a powerful looking male dragon. He didn’t look at all concerned by my presence. I could see his burned-orange underbelly meeting his throat pouches at his bull-neck.

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A fine looking male Eastern Water Dragon

Another large dragon scurried up a rock close by. He looked over his shoulder to make sure that I was photographing the full length of his magnificent whip tail. I had walked the whole of the North Head and now, on Shelly Beach under a grey sky and the shelter of a few trees, I was sat on sandstone rock with two large dragons flanking me.

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Finally a break in the rain gave me a chance to scamper back to the dock. I sat on the ferry flicking through the photos that I’d taken in a few hours at Manly. Not bad for a short walk in the scrub land overlooking one of the world’s major cities. Mission accomplished!

 

Join the conversation below. Have you seen Eastern Water Dragons in Australia? What urban reptile encounters have you had 👇👇👇

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Categories: AustraliaTags: , , , , , ,

David

I am a wildlife blogger and world traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.

22 Comments

  1. Oh what a fabulous time you had! I can feel if from your narrative. And you got some truly excellent shots. I lived in Sydney many years ago and was not much interested in wildlife at the time, but my family home is Canberra, and it you ever want to see water dragons go to the botanical gardens in Canberra. You’ll not only see water dragons – in the water and on the rocks around – but kangaroos, and an echidna if you’re lucky, and many birds. Canberra is the best urban place for wild life in oz I think. If you scroll down you’ll see a couple in this post: https://alisonanddon.com/2015/03/15/my-family-and-other-wildlife-more-about-canberra/
    and there’s a couple more in the post called Whining and Wildlife in Canberra.
    Your post wants me now go and explore the wilder parts of Sydney!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alison, thanks for the kind words. It always means a lot coming from you because you have a wonderful blog. Your Canberra post is excellent! I only made it to the Canberra area once and that was to visit the Cotter dam for work. I did see kangaroos in the area and had to pretend that I wasn’t super excited! I hope to get back to that part of the world again.
      Sydney is one of my favourite cities in the world for wildlife. There is a rich array of birdlife and the marine mammals and pelagic birds are all within an hour of the coast. I had a fantastic three years there and always enjoy a short visit when I can. Best wishes, David

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David, Insure would have lived going on that adventure with you. I love reptiles. Haven’t been to Australia, ever. The most dramatic reptiles I’ve seen in the wild are rattlesnakes and collared lizards. We just had a spate of heavy downpours at our desert home and oddly, a turtle popped by for a visit! Never happens here. Usually only see them in large ponds, not next to my garage on a hill.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never seen a rattlesnake of collared lizard. I’d be very happy to see either of them! 🤓 A lot of the reptiles in Australia are deadly. Seven of the top ten most venomous snakes on the planet live there. These guys are just harmless, good looking lizards!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve made a couple dozen trips to Australia, but have yet to see one of these in the wild. My reptilian highlight was a goanna that I found watching me near the path while I was bicycling around Rottnest Island near Perth. Your diligence paid off very nicely. I especially like your third-from-last image.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! These guys are pretty photogenic. I think they are mainly confined to the east coast. A goanna is a pretty good sighting. I only saw a couple small goannas while I was there. I’d have been thrilled to see more. Maybe next time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • So cool! I’m sure one of the reasons for my fascination with these chunky lizards comes from those old dinosaur movies where they would take a lizard, paint it, stick a horn on its nose and make it look massive.

      Liked by 1 person

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