The Lyrebird Man

Lyrebird log hut
Lyrebird log hut

You might assume he was not well-educated – electoral rolls listed him as iron founder and labourer – but that is far from the truth. Widely known as The Lyrebird Man and recognised by ornithologists as an authority on lyrebirds, Thomas Henry Tregellas was born in Bendigo on 16 June 1864. His father William was a blacksmith born in Cornwall, England and the family was wellknown in Bendigo before moving to Melbourne.

Tom Tregellas wrote intermittently for The Argus and other newspapers. His first appearance was in the Camberwell & Hawthorn Advertiser, 9 January 1910 with a delightful article about ‘A Trip to King Island’. How dedicated Tom was in the pursuit of his quarry is obvious from an article of 3 October 1914 titled ‘Tuning the Lyre’.

“‘Coolink coolink, coolink coolink, coolink coolink’, came the call from the hillside amongst the bracken. I had been searching all the morning for his nest, but he was not to be trapped that way. Long weary tramps through tangled masses of wire grass and hazel. Scrambles through jungles of sword grass and wattle. Pushing and shoving through clumps of wild nettle, and still I could not locate the nest. I was tired and hungry, cut and scarred with sword grass and stinging with nettles … I ventured toward the sounds from the hillside. In a thicket of bracken amongst the hazel I came across a newly-made dancing mound, showing the marks where the bird had been lately performing. He was still calling ‘Coolink’ in the distance and the scrub too thick to approach without alarming him, so I begin afresh in my search for the nest. After about an hour … on a dead musk tree, and partly obscured by a fern, the nest was found. It was about twelve feet from the ground, and built of rough sticks and fern roots, lined with very fine roots and feathers. The nest was unfinished, and remained so, as the birds deserted it once they discovered my footprints … I had the satisfaction of seeing the male bird dancing on another mound. To do this requires a great deal of patience and perseverance, as one may only advance when the bird is calling … Moving inch by inch and foot by foot, sometimes with one foot in the air waiting for a chance to get it down, and sometimes on hands and knees for a spell, I got within twenty-five feet of him unobserved. Then I heard one of the most remarkable performances it had ever been my lot to hear. Beginning always with the call of the jackass, he rapidly changed to that of the butcher bird. Then followed in rapid succession the notes of the grey thrush, coachwhip-bird, wattle, pilot, strepera, and white-eared honeyeater … I never saw the female, but I am convinced she was about somewhere, as the performance was for her special benefit and not at all likely to be given to empty benches.”

Tom’s articles tended towards ‘purple prose’ but were well-received. In an article in the Box Hill Reporter of 23 August 1918 about ‘A Bunch of Sassafras’:

“On the table before me is a bunch of sassafras, aromatic, fragrant, and spicy, sending out endless waves of delicate perfume that steal o’er the senses like a benediction. It seems so sadly out of place in a warm room, far removed from its home in the hills where wattle blooms and lyre-birds call, and giant gums tower up aloft and give their sheltering shade. Found nowhere but in the damp secluded gullies of our mountain ranges, it flourishes and blooms with its feet in the water and its head in the air, and will never do any good in any other situation.”

The Argus 25 June 1935: ‘Preservation of Hut’:

“The governing council of the League of Youth of Australia decided yesterday to take steps to have Mr. Tom Tregellas’s log hut in the Sherbrooke Forest preserved to perpetuate Mr. Tregellas’s work for the fauna of Australia. Mr. Tregellas made the hut his centre for observations of the habits of the lyrebird.”

Eighteen years later, in a Letter to Editor, 20 June 1953, R.T. Littlejohns wrote:

“… The area of Sherbrooke made famous by the late Tom Tregellas in his pioneering work on lyrebirds is being cleared of native forest for the apparent purpose of planting still more pines. The log originally marked with notices about Tom Tregellas and the campaign he waged to save the lyrebird, is gone. Not even the notices remain.”

R.T. Littlejohns specialised in forest photography. The Argus of 1 August 1935:

“A remarkable achievement in forest photography was revealed yesterday, when motion pictures of the lyrebird, taken in Sherbrooke Forest recently by Mr. R.T. Littlejohns, were screened under the auspices of the Commonwealth Department of Commerce. Associated with the pictures was an eloquent sound film of the lyrebird’s voice. It is hoped that these films will be the basis of a splendid series of “talkies” of Australian bush life to be shown abroad.”

Tom Tregellas lived locally – Hawthorn, Camberwell and Canterbury and had a bush shack in a gully near Belgrave. He died on 10 October 1938 having been ill for nearly six years and is buried in Box Hill Cemetery.

From The Argus, 12 October 1938:

“Mr. Tom Tregellas the noted naturalist who died at Canterbury on Monday was buried yesterday at the Box Hill Cemetery. … Mr. Tregellas was a contributor of nature articles and photographs to “The Argus” and “The Australasian” and was recognised by ornithologists as an authority on the lyrebird.

Frequent visitors to his hollow log “Menura” in the Sherbrooke forest where he observed the habits of the lyrebird, were the former State Governors Lord Stradbroke and Lord Somas. One of Lord Stradbroke’s sons on several occasions stayed with Mr. Tregellas all night to observe the birds. The log and gully in which Mr. Tregellas worked have become preserved by the Government as a tribute to his work.

About Raine Biancalt 36 Articles
Raine Biancalt has a Diploma of Arts (Professional Writing & Editing) and a background in both government and corporate worlds. She enjoys art, history, writing and old movies.