Saturday, June 18, 2011

8th Winter Survey

Camel Back Trail in 2011

Superb Lyrebird Survey at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
Saturday 18 June 2011

The eighth annual survey of the Superb Lyrebird, designed to provide an index of population numbers since the 2003 bushfires, was run under cool and unfortunately very windy conditions.

The Reserve had been closed to the public the day before due to high winds but, despite the survey starting off under ideal conditions, the wind soon got up with gusts up to 60 km per hour recorded.

The eight COG members were joined this year by 23 members of Conservation Volunteer Australia (CVA) who volunteer their services in the Reserve. We were all assembled at the car park by 8.00 am and after breaking up into teams soon started to survey the five main walking trails. For the first time the number of participants allowed us to form a sixth team and we were able to survey the redesigned Lyrebird/Cascades Trail.

Taking a minimum count and not including the Lyrebird/ Cascades trail, 13 individual lyrebirds were recorded within the Reserve compared with 6, 14, 12, 12, 19, 19-20 and 20 in previous years (Gibraltar Rocks-2, Devil’s Gap-
0, Fishing Gap-2, Ashbrook-3, Camel Back-6 and Lyrebird/Cascades-2).

During the survey 33 species were recorded, similar to previous years, with the number seen depending very much on the trail walked, with Gibraltar Rocks-26, Devil’s Gap-17, Fishing Gap-11, Ashbrook-13, Camel Back-8 and Lyrebird/Cascades-6, indicating that the wetter, eastern facing slopes appeared to be the most affected by the wind. Although no species were reported on all trails the most frequently recorded were the Superb Lyrebird, Brown Thornbill, Superb Fairy-wren and White-throated Treecreeper. Unusual sightings, all along the Gibraltar Rocks trail, were New Holland Honeyeater, Crescent Honeyeater, Yellow- tufted Honeyeater and three Hooded Robins. Although the Scarlet Robin was reported, there were no sightings of Flame Robin or Satin Bowerbird. No raptors were recorded during the survey although a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagle was seen near the Visitors Centre.

At 1.00 pm the party assembled in the lecture room at the ‘Depot’ for a presentation by Peter Fullagar and Chris Davey on the recovery of lyrebirds at Tidbinbilla after the 2003 bushfires.

Many thanks to the participants, to the authorities for waiving the entry fees, and to David McDonald, who with his computer came to the rescue of the presentation.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

7th Winter Survey

Superb Lyrebird survey at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
Saturday 19 June 2010

The seventh annual survey of the Superb Lyrebird, designed to provide an index of population numbers since the 2003 bushfires, was run under cool, windy and misty conditions.

Thirteen COG members and friends met at the car park of the Reserve at 8.30 am and were soon dispatched to the five main walking trails: Gibraltar Rocks, Devil’s Gap, Fishing Gap, Ashbrook and Camel Back. Since the introduction of fees, over the weekends the gates to the Reserve now open at 7.30 am.

Taking a minimum count, 20 individuals were recorded within the Reserve, compared with 6, 14, 12, 12, 19 and 19-20 in previous years. There now appears to be a trend emerging with numbers having plateaued since the 2008 survey and with a continuing preference for the wetter, eastern facing slopes. There was a minimum of 12 individuals reported from Camel Back and four reported from Ashbrook.

During the survey, 30 bird species were recorded, similar to last year, with the highest number of species from Gibraltar Rocks (16) and Devil’s Gap (16). The White-browed Scrubwren, Brown Thornbill, Striated Thornbill and Superb Lyrebird were reported from all trails with the White-eared Honeyeater being the most vocal species. Interesting observations included the Wedge-tailed Eagle, Satin Bowerbird, Grey Currawong and New Holland Honeyeater. Both Scarlet and Flame Robins were reported.

Many thanks to the participants and to the relevant authorities for waiving the entry fee.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

6th Winter Survey

Superb Lyrebird survey at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
 20 June 2009

The sixth annual survey of the Superb Lyrebird was run under cloudy and foggy conditions. Sixteen COG members met at the gates of the Reserve at 8.30 am and were soon dispersed to the five main walking trails, Gibraltar Rocks, Devil's Gap, Fishing Gap, Ashbrook and Camel Back.

There were 19-20 individuals recorded within the Reserve with an addition 3 birds recorded east of the Reserve. This compares with 6, 14, 12, 12 and 19 from the previous surveys within the Reserve. Of these, 9-10 were reported from Camel Back and 5 from Ashbrook again confirming the birds' preference for the wetter eastern facing slopes.

During the survey 30 bird species were recorded with the highest number (14) from the Fishing Gap and Gibraltar Rocks trails. Interesting observations included Wedge-tailed Eagle, Grey Butcherbird, Grey Fantail, Grey Currawong and a single Scarlet Robin. As usual White- eared Honeyeaters were very vocal throughout the Reserve.

Many thanks to the participants and the staff at Tidbinbilla for again allowing us early access into the Reserve.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

6. Tidbinbilla studies

Tidbinbilla Lyrebirds

Start of the Camel Back trail at the bottom of our study area
View south in July 2008

July has been a busy month for the 'Lyrebird Team' at Tidbinbilla. Chris Davey, Ed Slater and I have been mulling over how we should best continue with the studies we have been carrying out at the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and we have decided it is now time to revise some of our methods and move to other ways of monitoring the Tidbinbilla Superb Lyrebird populations. In particular we have been thinking about better ways to account for the number of lyrebirds on our main study plot.We do not have the time nor the energy to search each spring for all the active nests but we ought to be able to account for the number of singing and territory holding males present in the breeding season. Our automatic sound recording station can no longer provide the necessary data for this purpose but it has fulfilled its role splendidly as an early detection system during the first few years of the re-establishment of the lyrebird population. Multiple stations might solve the problem but that idea is not practicable with our limited resources and time. We need to keep it very simple but robust.

Superb Lyrebirds are spectacular songsters! Their song output is all high energy stuff and is commonly sustained for long bouts of singing, particularly at dawn but again at dusk. In their song they mix distinctive lyrebird elements, including regionally characteristic territorial calls, along with huge amounts of mimicry. They sing in the depths of winter and they sing from within dense mountain forests where the reverberation of sound is magnificent! There are few other birds calling at this time of the year. Listening to lyrebirds is a truly unforgettable experience.

Click the following to hear a short segment of Superb Lyrebird song:


This recording was made in territory 6 (see later) early in the morning on 29th July this year.

By way of introduction it is probably necessary to mention a few other important features of lyrebirds. First, there are two species. A northern Albert's Lyrebird Menura alberti which is restricted in range to a relatively small area of mountain forests in South-eastern Queensland and far north-eastern NSW. The second species, the Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae, has a much larger distribution in south-eastern Australia extending within the Great Dividing Ranges and associated coastal wet forests from northern NSW to Melbourne. Superb Lyrebirds have been introduced successfully to Tasmania. This occurred in the 1930s but they are still restricted to the few areas near where they were originally liberated in the south of the island. In Canberra we are near to the western limits of the range of the Superb Lyrebird but, nevertheless, they are widespread in the ranges to the west of the city, at least they were until the disastrous fires of early 2003! It is also important to remember that lyrebirds breed in winter. Females lay a single egg and perform all of the incubation and chick rearing duties. Males indulge in long periods of singing, mostly, in the case of Superb Lyrebirds, from specially prepared stages or courts or mound courts. Again in the case of Superb lyrebirds these are cleared, roughly circular patches of raked soil on the forest floor that are constructed by the male and are kept clear during periods of use. This sort of breeding strategy is often termed lekking and the system of courts spread across a territory, as used by Superb Lyrebirds, has been termed a dispersed lek (see Paul A. Johnsgard 1994 Arena Birds, Smithsonian Inst. Press).

Landsat images of the ACT from before the fire (left) and on the 26th January 2003 (right) when the fire was still burning to the south in the Namadgi National Park (plumes of smoke visible drifting SE). Our study site at Tidbinbilla is marked by the blue arrow on the left-hand image. The white lines indicate the ACT borders with NSW and shows that most of the western half of the Territory was destroyed by this fire

Superb Lyrebird display mound or court - July 2008

Now back to our studies!

We have been trying to follow the recovery of the population of Superb Lyrebirds in the forests surrounding the Tidbinbilla valley following the wildfire that burnt out the whole area in January 2003. In part we have done this by annual one day co-ordinated surveys along all the regular trails within the Nature Reserve. These one-day surveys have been organized each winter since 2004 and have depended on the help of a bunch of enthusiastic volunteers from the Canberra Ornithologists Group. The method certainly gives us an overall idea of distribution and with it some idea of the relative densities of lyrebirds across the valley but to look at population recovery in more detail we decided to concentrate our efforts within an area that had been studied in great detail nearly 50 years ago.

A diagrammatic representation of the Superb Lyrebird territories found in the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve during each of the three winter surveys of 2004 (red), 2005 (blue) and 2006 (yellow). The main ridge lines are indicated in brown and the walking trails used for surveying the whole valley are shown in green

Norman Robinson at the weather station near the CSIRO hut on the study site in the 1960s
Our automatic recording station was set up near this point.

Another view of the Tidbinbilla hut. This site was referred to by Norman Robinson as the High Camp. Note the microphone cables running off into the study area. This array of microphones was used to sample the song output from lyrebirds occupying several surrounding territories. Associated cables also lead to thermistors that were used to record air temperature close to selected display mounds in the same territories

Norman Robinson at a Superb Lyrebird's display mound - October 1964

Jim Bell and Charlie Kogon with piles of microphone wire during a clean up at the hut site in September 1967

In the early 1960s Harry Frith and Norman Robinson carried out innovative studies on Superb Lyrebirds at Tidbinbilla. Norman, in particular, developed an interest in the mimicry content of lyrebird song and by applying new techniques of field recording coupled with the newly emerging technologies of bio-acoustics he made significant advances in the understanding of Tidbinbilla Superb lyrebird song structure and particularly the role of mimicry. A newly aquired Kay-elemetrics Sonagraph permitted the spectral analysis of sound samples. Being able to graphically view the frequency and amplitude structure of sound was crucial in characterizing song. This had not been possible before. It was cutting-edge science at that time. Norman worked for CSIRO and with Harry Frith, who was the Chief of the Division of Wildlife Research they established what at the time was a world class wildlife sound laboratory equipped with one of the very first Sonagraph machines. This laboratory was the starting point for the extensive archive of regional wildlife sound recordings that has been inherited by the Australian National Wildlife Collection. With this background it is by far the largest and most comprehensive collection of Australian wildlife sound recordings and, of course, includes an enormous collection of lyrebird material!

Vertical aerial photo-image of the study area at Tidbinbilla taken shortly after the wildfire in January 2003. The main creek lines are highlighted in blue. The Camel Back fire trail is also clearly visible

Again, returning to the Tidbinbilla of today it is important to realize that our present studies have developed from these important earlier investigations. Using information from the CSIRO studies (Robinson and Frith 1981 Emu 81:145-157) and Norman Robinson's preserved field notes (now in the ANWC sound library) we have been able to delineate their original study area above Mountain Creek with some confidence and with this as the starting point we have tried to follow the re-occupation by territory holding males within this particular area. Our aim has been to see how long it takes for numbers to return to those observed years ago by Norman Robinson and Harry Frith.

The creek system in the study area. The altitude difference between the upper and lower sides of this image is a fall of more than 200m. The dots indicate the positions of nests found during the study by Robinson and Frith in the early 1960s

A view in the area where the CSIRO hut had once stood. Remains of the galvanized water tank can be seen. This picture was taken on 8th May 2003 four months after the wildfire. The hut and most of the other associated materials had been removed from the site many years before the fire

The old hut site on 8th May 2003 - four months after the fire. The remnant base-plate for the weather station (see picture above from the 1960s) is visible in the left foreground

Panorama at the hut site (Norman Robinson's High Camp) taken a year after the fire (January 2004). The slow regrowth of ground cover or dense shrub layer is evident

Unfortunately, we were unable to gain access for several months after the devastating wildfire of January 2003 because of the danger of falling burnt timber but eventually we were given permission to make short visits. Initially, the lyrebirds occurring on the study area were easy to detect. This was especially so during the first year because during that time there was almost no ground cover. It was abundantly obvious that few birds were present. Signs of lyrebird activity were found immediately we inspected the study area. Our first question was - where did these surviving lyrebirds come from? Did they survive as residents within the area or were they immigrants from some more distant refugia? We have no idea. Because the wildfire was so widespread and so intense it is difficult to see how they could have survived much better elsewhere. We may never know the answer to this critical question but we have some clues in that the song structure does not seem to have altered very markedly when compared with the recorded songs of earlier years. This suggests that the cultural characteristics have been maintained. For example, the highly distinctive whip-crack call of the Eastern Whipbird Psophodes olivaceus is not included in the list of mimicry we can recognize today nor was it in the past. This is unusual in that Superb Lyrebirds elsewhere throughout their wide range frequently include Eastern Whipbird mimicry but not at Tidbinbilla! There are no Eastern Whipbirds in the Tidbinbilla Valley catchment.

A view into the weather-proof box containing the automatic sound recording equipment used at Tidbinbilla

The gear in the box in July 2008
Some technology improvements and some compromises!

Our microphone in position.
A Sennheiser K6 power-unit with ME62 omni-directional capsule under a Rycote Softie. The AA battery can be expected to perform reliably and continuously for at least 8 days. Photo taken July 2008

Back to our survey methods. We set up an automatic sound recording station which we then ran for a week each month for the next five years. These 50 or so week-long samples form the basis of our observations on the return of lyrebirds to the study area. Each sample contains a series of 10-second long sound clips taken at half hourly intervals night and day for the whole week. This gives us 48 acoustic samples per day. The analysis of these data is still in progress but it has certainly provided us with a good measure of the intensity of lyrebird calling month by month through this period of five years.

Calling frequency of Superb Lyrebirds at Tidbinbilla, month by month, for three winters.
Blue columns indicate the same winter periods.
Sampling did not occur from November 03 until April 04 nor from November 04 till April 05.

Calling frequency of Superb Lyrebirds at Tidbinbilla according to time of day.
Data from August - October periods shown in blue above.

In addition, we have done ground searches across the area to detect lyrebirds. In the early days this was relatively easy and we considered it a reliable method of finding where lyrebirds were active and indeed most times we were pretty sure that all birds were seen. As the vegetation thickened it became increasingly difficult to move about the study area and to see lyrebirds or even find the evidence of their scratchings in the soil which would confirm that they were foraging in particular areas. Ground cover became very dense and this method was clearly becoming impracticable.

We thought about plotting the distribution of display mounds. We tried a transect surveys method to plot sample segments of the area but this proved to be too time consuming and in any event was considered it to be inadequate for determining the number of birds in any reliable way.

The transect trail (2km of the Camel Back Trail) along which we counted singing Superb Lyrebirds in July 2008. Change in elevation from bottom to top was approximately 900m to 1000m ASL.

In July 2008 we decided to do some count surveys along the main trail that leads up through the centre of the study area. We planned to start at dawn and run the trail up and back two or three times. By taking GPS (Global Positioning System) fixes each time we heard a calling lyrebird and by noting the compass bearing to each singing bird from two or more Waypoints we would plot the positions of each singing individual. Numbers of birds detected each transect fell off remarkably quickly after the first two hours following first light and we concluded that it was unrewarding to do more than a single run up and back down the trail. The climb involved a 200 metre difference in altitude so the less often it had to be done the better! We did four consecutive morning counts with two ascents and two descents each morning, thus giving four transect counts per day. The results were spectacularly convincing that we could detect practically all birds in a single run up and down! The following map shows what we concluded to be the distribution of singing males in July 2008.

Waypoints used on the first ascent transect 20th July 2008. Note that waypoint 1 is missing on this map but was at the start point

Plotted positions of singing Superb Lyrebirds across the study site at Tidbinbilla in July 2008. Colours signify plots from different transect runs and different days

Deduced Superb Lyrebird territories constructed from field data (above) collected 19th -22nd July 2008. The size and shape of these territories is arbitrary and does not necessarily represent the true area for any one of them. These representations are purely to indicate the distribution of discrete male territories. Numbering is also arbitrary

To finish here are three more cuts of Tidbinbilla Superb Lyrebird song. This is the male from territory 9 (on the map above) singing at a little after 0800hr on 29th July this year. The three cuts follow in sequence and are continuous but the original was slightly edited.

These recordings, by the way, and the one earlier, were made on a minidisc (Sony Recording MD Walkman MZ-R900) as compressed files, expanded to AIFF files, edited in Peak 4 and then re-compressed to MP3 format using Amadeus ll so they could be added to this blog. Not much loss of detail despite such treatment!




Roll on 2009 and our next Tidbinbilla lyrebird surveys!

Frozen trail-side pool - 24 July 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

5. Tidbinbilla studies

The following maps of the study area were included in the paper by Robinson and Frith (1981). We have transposed the essential details on these diagrams using a current topographic map [Central Mapping Authority of NSW - Tidbinbilla 8627-11-S; 1:25 000] and aerial photography of the site [Environment ACT] taken shortly after the fire in January 2003.

This was figure 1. Map of the study area showing male territories and location of nests.

This was part of figure 2. Map of the two principal territories, showing location of [principal] mounds, microphones and food sampling points.

Topography of the study area at Tidbinbilla

Our interpretation of the study area of Robinson and Frith

Transposed details on the study area including the nine Superb Lyrebird territories show on the maps of Robinson and Frith

Robinson, F. N., & H.J. Frith. 1981. The Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae at Tidbinbilla, ACT. Emu 81: 145-157.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Capturing the song of Menura

The following is an edited and updated version of the text of a paper that was presented at a meeting of the Australian Wildlife Sound Recording Group some years ago. This particular meeting was held at O'Reilly's Rainforest Guesthouse, Lamington, Queensland from 11th -15th October 1999. I have been able to add a little more pictorial material than was possible to include at the time of the original presentation at the meeting but none of it is new evidence.

Until now this presentation has remained unpublished and therefore it seemed a good idea to add it to my blog. To my knowledge no useful additional information has come to light since 1999. Consequently, nothing substantial can yet be added to this fascinating story.

This small sunlit opening in the forest at Sherbrooke is of some interest. Here microphones have been concealed year after year to record the song of one of the most widely heard wild birds in the world, or to broadcast it direct over the Australian Broadcasting Commission's network. Several dancing mounds of the famous performer are situated amongst the ferns in this small open space. Thus reads the caption for this picture (plate XXIV) in Littlejohns 1938. See also a picture included later in the following account.

Peter J. Fullagar and Ederic S. Slater

The first sound recording in Australia of a wild bird was made 28 June 1931. On that day the song of the Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae was preserved on sound-film in Sherbrooke Forest in the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne. Australian Sound Films Ltd. made this historic recording with the assistance of Ray Littlejohns who was at the time completing a film on lyrebirds. The recording was broadcast during the evening of 2 July 1931, from a radio station in Sydney. Until this time all attempts at recording the song of the Superb Lyrebird in the wild had been frustrated by lack of suitable equipment with all previous efforts being of unacceptable quality.
The recording used in the production of a gramophone record was made on 29 May 1932; repeating the field recording methods used in 1931. This record was issued in late 1932 or possibly not until 1933.
Further recordings on sound-film were made in Sherbrooke Forest; one of special interest being a 45 minute recording made in 1934 which was subsequently used in preparing the soundtrack for the film on lyrebirds produced on behalf of the Commonwealth Government by Ray Littlejohns.
The first direct broadcast of the song of the Superb Lyrebird went to air on Sunday morning 5 July 1931, following some earlier test transmissions in Melbourne. This broadcast, by the Australian Broadcasting Company, was made from Sherbrooke Forest with various telephone and land-line connexions making it possible to relay the signal for simultaneous transmissions out of Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide radio stations. Reception was hailed as excellent; indeed, reception of this transmitted signal in Tasmania allowed for re-transmission from a radio station in Hobart.
A short wave overseas transmission of the broadcast on 5 July 1931 was provided by Amalgamated Wireless (A’asia) Ltd. and reception was confirmed, at least, from North America. Broadcasts of Superb Lyrebird song from Sherbrooke Forest were transmitted in 1933 and 1934, including further short-wave overseas transmissions.


For some time there has been confusion over details in connexion with the earliest recordings in Australia of the song of a wild bird. Attempts to make a permanent recording of the song of the Superb Lyrebird in Sherbrooke Forest near Melbourne in 1931-2 seem to be the only candidate for the honour of first wild bird sound recording. However, these recording activities were confounded by simultaneous efforts of two groups, one trying to record the Superb Lyrebird the other trying to broadcast a live performance of lyrebird song. The two groups were operating from the same forest location! Obviously, a certain amount of rivalry occurred between them and no doubt this led to some secrecy about the exact circumstances of their pioneering sound-recording and outside-broadcasting activities.
In one way or another three individuals are closely involved with this story about early attempts at sound recording and broadcasting of a wild bird in Australia. Ray Littlejohns was a notable bird photographer and amateur film maker specially interested in the study of lyrebirds, a subject on which he published several books and articles (see references below and p 448–9 in Whittell 1954). Michael Sharland, a notable amateur naturalist, was a staff journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald 1927–1940 (see p 658–660 in Whittell 1954) and Tom Tregellas was another very keen bird photographer with a special interest in the Superb Lyrebirds of Sherbrooke Forest (see p 721 in Whittell 1954; Sharland, 1981).
We have tried to reconstruct some of the details of these important sound recording and broadcasting events and the following interpretation is gleaned from the limited information we have been able to consult. It is surprising that no information has been uncovered, so far, from the archives of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (B. Tomkins pers. com.) Material in the Michael Sharland and Ray Littlejohns archives, now deposited with the Australian Museum in Sydney, were consulted but no substantial unpublished information was found. A field notebook used by Sharland contained the briefest of notes on the events of June 1931; in effect providing little more than confirmation of his presence at the site of the intended direct broadcast.

Four pages from a field notebook of Michael Sharland.
From the top: Front page; another title page listing some nests found in 1929; a page with the only significant 1931 entry and a note on the opposite page about photography of Superb Lyrebird and finally a summary page reporting that two active Superb Lyrebird nests were found in June 1931. The entries for June 1931 read: June 21: At menura arranging for broadcast of lyreBirds call. Officials(?) of 3LO here. Heard males calling. June 28: Photoed male on roots. 3 exps(?). Cut track in shorter line to top of hill to lay wire for broadcast. Windy Day. Note that the 28th June 1931 was a windy day and that two different lyrebird nest sites were examined that day. (original notebook held in R. T. Littlejohns archive collection at the Australian Museum, Sydney)

Accounts published in books and journals

According to Ray Littlejohns (Littlejohns 1932a, b & c) in June 1931 the first permanent recording of the song of the Superb Lyrebird was made by Australian Sound Films and was broadcast in Australia and later in England and America. This was achieved after many years of frustration with the difficulties presented by his efforts to make a sound recording of the song of a wild Superb Lyrebird. Apparently, some ‘.... experiments were carried out with old phonographs and wax cylinders long before the advent of sound-film, which solved the problem eventually’ (Littlejohns 1933). In these publication Littlejohns gives no precise date for this first recording but (see later) we have other information that convincingly points to 28 June being the day and to the fact that about 11 minutes of recording on sound-film was achieved.
It was intended that a gramophone recording be produced but delays occurred and it was eventually decided that a new recording would be made to overcome some of the imperfections of this first successful effort. The imperfections were said to be caused by distortion from ‘microphone blasting on the loud notes due to an undetected fault on the recording equipment’ (Littlejohns 1932b). After some considerable time involved with preparations, starting early in April 1932, it seems that a new recording was eventually made on 29 May 1932 for production of the gramophone record (Littlejohns 1932b; 1933).

A gramophone record was produced and issued by Herschells of Australia under the title ‘The History and Song of The Lyre Bird – Australia’s greatest songster’. The original sleeve to this 10-inch 78 rpm disc shows that it was recorded by ‘Herschells Pty Ltd, Sound Picture Producers, Melbourne in Sherbrooke forest, Victoria, Australia, under the supervision of Mr Ray Littlejohns’ and the spoken dialogue on the recording was by Mr. Alfred L. Samuel. This gramophone record was manufactured by Moulded Products (Aust) Pty. Ltd. and, obviously from the accounts given by Littlejohns (1932b; 1933), cannot have been issued before 1932.

Cover sleeve of the Herschells 78rpm disc of the Lyrebird

Label (side 2) of Herschells 78 rpm disc of the lyrebird
A book was published to accompany the Herschells record (Littlejohns, 1933) in which there is a photograph (opposite p 34) of a display mound attributed to the recording site. A chapter on ‘recording and broadcasting under natural conditions’ contains no specific details concerning the historic events of 1931-2. At the back of the book there is a detailed ‘time-table for use with the lyre-bird gramophone record’ (Littlejohns 1933). Issue of this book would seem to fix the date of the gramophone release as no later than the book.
The caption to this photograph in 'The Magic Voice' (Littlejohns, 1933) reads:
An historic spot. The mound upon which the Lyre-Bird stood whilst his song was recorded.

Cover of R. T. Littlejohns 1933 book.
Interestingly, a 12–inch version of this recording was issued by Decca Recording Co Ltd, in England (K692 GA 5165-6]) under the title ‘THE SONG OF THE LYRE BIRD (Australia’s greatest songster)’. Its release date is not shown on the disc. The recordings on the 10-inch and 12-inch discs seem to be identical.
Therefore, contrary to an account by Brand (1938), the first sound recording experimentations by Ray Littlejohns in 1931 were not the source of the gramophone recording eventually produced by Herschells and the consequent minor error in stating that this gramophone recording was released as early as 1931.

The Decca 12 inch record.
Delving further into the background to these historic field recordings of wild birds Michael Sharland tried to clarify the circumstances of the earliest attempts to broadcast the song of the Superb Lyrebird (Sharland 1962). He states that:
...........‘Credit for the first actual, or “live”, broadcast should, I feel, go to the late Tom Tregellas of Melbourne. [The] two broadcasts were in fact made within a few days of one another, and as a matter of interest, the details might be put on record. I myself heard both and took part in one.
There was some little rivalry, withal friendly, between Ray Littlejohns and Tom Tregellas on lyrebird matters about 1930-31. Admittedly, Littlejohns got in first with the bird’s song on the air, but this wasn’t a “live” broadcast, but was reproduced from a film sound track which he had made a year or so earlier.
It was also a case of one radio station getting in before the other. When the Australian Broadcasting Commission (sic) announced that, with the help of Tregellas, it would try for a broadcast from Sherbrooke forest on a certain day a commercial station controlled by a Melbourne newspaper at once got a sound track from Littlejohns, and with him as commentator, put over this “mechanical” broadcast a few days beforehand. It was the next week-end, on the scheduled day, that Tregellas’ “live” broadcast was put on, after he and I had cut tracks through bracken and scrub for the wires. Tregellas gave a running commentary on the bird as it performed and called in front of the microphones laid to its mounds. This was on a Sunday afternoon in June 1931, and the performance came over well. Subsequent “live” broadcasts were made both by Tregellas and Littlejohns.
Sharland (1931) gives the date for this broadcast as 28 June 1931 although Smith (1968), presumably in error, records the date of this historic broadcast from Melbourne as 27 June 1931. Both agree that it was transmitted through the radio stations 3AR and 3LO of the Australian Broadcasting Company. Len Smith adds the comment that the broadcast was ‘repeated on 5 July 1931 when it was relayed to all states of the Commonwealth and received with perfect clarity in New South Wales and Tasmania’ (Smith 1968). These accounts seem to contradict the record as shown in newsprint of the time (see later). It seems the broadcast promoted by Littlejohns and the live broadcast achieved with the assistance of Tom Tregellas have been confounded. It is possible (see later) that the mention of broadcasts in late June if not referring to those orchestrated by Littlejohns, alternatively might refer to some preliminary tests by the ABC. However, the ‘official’ and generally recognized first live broadcast (see later) must be the one that occurred on 5 July 1931.
Regarding these early broadcasts, whether from the recorded sound or by live broadcast, it seems that reception was good. Transmission in Tasmania was a ‘distinct success; so clear were the sounds...’ (Dove 1931) and likewise reception in Sydney was ‘well received...’ (Chisholm 1931). The important point to be made is that the ‘...Lyrebird thus became the first wild bird in Australia to be brought to the public notice through a direct broadcast or sound film’ and this occurred in late June and early July of 1931 (Smith 1968).
There is a vivid description of these first broadcasts from Sydney (Allen 1931) indicating that the song of the Superb Lyrebird was transmitted live, not from a recording. It came from the ‘microphone, a wire to a near-by mountain cabin, the telephone to Melbourne, the long-distance telephone to Sydney, our local broadcasting station’ before it was put to air (Allen 1931).
Littlejohns recounts that direct broadcasts of Superb Lyrebird song were achieved in 1932, 1933 and 1934, with the last being ‘favoured with perfect conditions’ (Littlejohns 1943; Smith 1968). There is a photograph (in Littlejohns 1943; opposite p 34) showing the temporary (open air) broadcasting studio in Sherbrooke forest, July 1934. Ray Littlejohns mentions that in 1934 about 45 mins of song was recorded using sound film, including for some of this time the songs of two lyrebirds. Furthermore, Littlejohns also states that these broadcasts were relayed throughout much of Australia but not overseas. Littlejohns also points out that the 1934 recording was used as soundtrack to a sound-film on the Superb Lyrebird produced by himself on behalf of the Commonwealth Government (Littlejohns 1938; 1943). The site of these [1934?] recording and broadcasting activities is claimed to be shown in another photograph (plate 24 inLittlejohns 1938).

Temporary broadcasting studio in Sherbrooke Forest, July, 1934.
The lower of two photographs shown opposite page 34 in Littlejohns 1943.

Cover of R. T. Littlejohns 1938 book.
Cover of R. T. Littlejohns 1943 paperback book.
The only other relevant photograph we have seen is one reproduced in a pamphlet (Bradley & Bradley, undated) and captioned ‘broadcasting the lyrebird, Sherbrooke Forest 1933’. It shows four people surrounding some field equipment in a portable case; one person wears headphones and all are within close range of a what appear to be a lyrebird just visible in the background.

Broadcasting the lyrebird, Sherbrooke Forest 1933. (From Bradley & Bradley undated)

Chronology of events based on newspaper accounts

We have examined all issues of the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) along with The Argus and The Age, both of Melbourne, for the critical period of June and July 1931.
In the SMH of 23 June, on p 8, under the column title – LYRE BIRDS. “Concerts” to be Broadcast. WIRE THROUGH A FOREST – MELBOURNE, Monday, the following appeared:
An attempt will be made shortly by 3AR in conjunction with Mr. Tom Tregellas and Mr. Michael Sharland, two Melbourne bird observers, to broadcast the calls of the lyre-bird. Arrangements are being made by the company to lay a wire with a microphone attached a mile through the forest in the Dandenong Ranges, 20 miles from Melbourne to a gully where the birds are now nesting.
This will be the first attempt to broadcast the singing of a wild bird in Australia, and as the lyre-bird is generally accepted as the outstanding mocking bird of the world the broadcast will provide a unique opportunity for bird lovers and others who have no intimate acquaintance with the bird to hear the remarkable concerts.
The first attempt to broadcast the calls will be made probably early in July, and it will be relayed by land lines to Sydney and Adelaide. If it is a success, it is proposed to make a gramophone record from the broadcast in order to have a permanent record of the lyre-bird’s vocal performances.

A longer column appeared in The Argus on the same day (p 9) under the heading LYRE BIRD’S MIMICRY. Broadcasting Proposed. This article was obviously based on the same source material as that use in the SMH on this day but includes some interesting additional comments.
Following the success of the British Broadcasting Corporation in the attempts made from time to time to broadcast the song of the nightingale, engineers of the Australian Broadcasting Co. intend to try shortly to bring a lyre bird before the microphone – or, more correctly, a microphone before the lyre bird – for the benefit of Australian listeners. The attempt will probably be made on the evening of July 5.
There is mention in this article of amplifiers together with an operator to be concealed near the microphone site and arrangements made (by Mr T. W. Bearup, the Melbourne Manager of the ABC) with the Postal department for installation of the necessary land lines. Transmission was expected to be made from 3LO.
An interesting letter to the Editor from F. L. Edwards in the SMH 26 June (p 5 column f) commenting on the SMH article of 23 June (above) questioning why the broadcast was done in Melbourne when it would have been much easier to achieve in Sydney from Lindfield Park. A typical example of Sydney–Melbourne rivalry!
In the SMH of 30 June (p 13) under the heading ‘THE LYRE-BIRD, Calls to be Broadcast’ the following appears:
'Arrangements have been made by the Australian Broadcasting Company to broadcast the calls of the lyre-bird through 3LO and 3AR next Sunday, between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., and 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. The transmission will be relayed by land line to Sydney and Adelaide.'
In The Argus of Thursday, 2 July (p?) under the heading ‘LYREBIRD’S MIMICRY, Sound Film Made at Sherbrooke’ the following significant details appear:
A sound record of the lyrebird’s mimicry has been made by Australian Sound Films Ltd., and it will be synchronised with motion pictures of the bird which were obtained some time ago. The recording apparatus was taken to Sherbrooke Forest on Sunday, and, after a good deal of preparatory work had been done, a record of the bird’s notes, occupying 11 minutes, was obtained. It is proposed to broadcast the sound to-night.
Arrangements are being made by the Australian Broadcasting Company to introduce the lyrebird to listeners on Sunday. ......
In the SMH of 3 July (p 12 column f) under the heading ‘LYRE BIRD Songs Broadcasted’ it was reported that ‘last evening ... 2UW Station, in conjunction with Mr. Rae (sic) Littlejohn (sic), one of Australia’s leading naturalists, ... broadcasted for the first time a sound film of the famous Australian imitator.’ ‘The film ... was made available by courtesy of 3DB, Melbourne, and was broadcast from Fox Theatrette, Goulburn-street.
In the SMH of 4 July (p 8) under a program heading ‘BROADCASTING. NATIONAL SERVICE. STATION 2FC. WAVE LENGTH 451 METRES’ it is shown that at 10:45 on Sunday morning a ‘relay from 3LO, Melbourne: Call of the lyre bird’ was to be expected. On p 12 of the same SMH issue of 4 July, under the heading ‘LYRE BIRD’S SONG’ appears the following:
The Governor (Sir Philip Game) and Lady Game, at the invitation of Mr. A Watkin Wynne, a director of Australian Sound Films, and accompanied by Mr. A. H. Chisholm, yesterday had a private audition of the sound film of the lyre-bird.
Their Excellencies are keenly interested in Australian flora and fauna, and expressed their delight at the variety and sweetness of the song of the lyre-bird.
In the SMH of Monday 6 July (p 8) under the heading ‘LYRE BIRD’S SONG – BROADCAST FROM FOREST’ it is reported that the ' of a lyre bird from his forest home was successfully broadcast yesterday morning by station 3LO Melbourne, and relayed to 2FC Sydney.’ The description of the operation includes the fact that a mirror was used to encourage the male to sing. Imitations said to have been included in his performance were ‘the sounds of a stone-crusher, a sawmill, numerous birds of the forest, and even a farmyard fowl.
The Argus of Monday 6 July 1931 reported more fully on the events of 5 July under the heading ‘LYREBIRD BROADCASTS. UNIQUE BUSH CONCERT. RUSE WITH A MIRROR.’ including the following:
Remarkable success was achieved yesterday by engineers of the Australian Broadcasting Company in the broadcasting of a lyrebird’s mimicry. There had been a short test transmission of some of the bird’s calls about a week ago, and yesterday the unique transmission was on the programme three times, twice in the morning and once late in the afternoon. Each time the lyrebird was heard clearly. The transmission was similar to one that was undertaken by the British Broadcasting Corporation when the song of the nightingale was broadcast.
The article continues with the information that more than two weeks of preparation were necessary; that a telephone line was run to a display mound in the selected gully; that three separate microphones were installed and connected to a temporary amplifier panel concealed nearby. Near one of these microphones a large mirror was installed ‘to arouse the bird’s curiosity, and it was believed that if it saw its own reflection it would stay near the mirror to sing.... ’. The bird sang and seemed to pay ‘no attention to the slight movements and low voices of Mr Tom Tregellas and the engineer who was in charge of the amplifier only a few feet away. Mr Tregellas explained for the benefit of listeners the names of other birds which the lyrebird mimicked.’ The account finishes with the following:
...... With a heavy fog in the gully and stillness in the forest the conditions of transmission were admirable.
The Australian Broadcasting Company reported that the broadcast had been relayed successfully to Sydney and Adelaide, and that it had been picked up and retransmitted from 7ZL, Hobart.
In The Age of Tuesday 7 July (p 7) under the heading ‘AUSTRALIAN BROADCAST. Not heard in England. LONDON, 5th July.’ states the following:
The Australian broadcast attempt today seems to have been almost a complete failure, though possibly a few individual experimenters, incited by the prospect of hearing the lyre bird’s note, succeeded in catching something.
Apparently no preliminary official announcement of the broadcast was conveyed to the authorities here, and only meagre newspaper publicity was accorded the project. wireless enthusiasts like Mr. Marcuse were not aware that the experiment was to be made, otherwise he would have listened.
The SMH of 7 July (p 9a) published almost the same wording under the heading ‘AUSTRALIAN BROADCAST. Reception Almost a Failure. LONDON, July 5’. However, this entry concludes with the useful comment: '[The lyre bird’s song was transmitted during the fourth session of the world broadcast, which was intended to serve Great Britain, Western Europe, South Africa, Rhodesia and Egypt.]'. Following this entry is another, captioned, ‘LOCAL BROADCAST OF LYRE BIRD’S SONG. MELBOURNE, Monday.’ It is here reported that the ‘broadcast throughout Australia of the mimicry of the lyrebird on Sunday was a complete success.’ It was also noted that the ‘transmission was made in the morning and again in the evening.
In The Argus of 7 July (p 7) under the heading ‘Lyrebird’s Call. Not Heard in England. LONDON, July 5’ much the same information as that given in The Age of the same day is repeated but adding that it was ‘Mr G. Marcuse, of Surrey’ who would have attempted to listen if he had been aware of the broadcast. Again, there is a useful final note: ‘[No attempt was made by 3LO or 3AR, which broadcast the Lyrebird’s call on Sunday, to make the broadcast audible in England]'.
In the SMH of Wednesday 8 July 9p 15 e) under the heading ‘OVERSEAS BROADCAST. Mr Fisk’s Explanation.’ is given a clarification by Mr E. T. Fisk, Managing director of Amalgamated Wireless on the misunderstandings about overseas broadcasts. He explained that ‘all overseas broadcasts from Australia, .... were transmitted on short waves, well below the ordinary broadcasting bands, and consequently could not be received on the ordinary listener’s set.' He added that ‘the innovation made by Amalgamated Wireless on Sunday last was the use of a much higher power than previously and the most convenient time for listeners and the best transmission conditions in different parts of the world. Reports from listeners with short-wave sets in different countries were expected to come by mail, and the company had no doubt that the transmissions were received by many listeners. The fact that the transmissions were not picked up by millions on the ordinary broadcast wave lengths had been interpreted as a failure.
Finally, in the SMH of 28 July (p 10 g) under the caption ‘BROADCAST OF LYRE-BIRD’ is the following:
A message was received by Amalgamated Wireless (A’sia), Ltd., yesterday stating that the broadcast of the lyre-bird’s call from Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria, had been very successful in America.

Ray Littlejohns lyrebird film with a soundtrack

Ray Littlejohns eventually completed his films about the Superb Lyrebird with a version that included a sound track, something he had obviously stiven for over may years. It was first published in 1938 with additional copies released in following years. Entitled 'Bushland Revels' it was a black and white 25 fps 16 mm film lasting 8 minutes. Based on material accumulated by Littlejohns over several years, going back to the early 1930s, the added sound track includes several minutes of Lyrebird song. We have viewed this film and can confirm that the quality of its sound track is much better than the track published on the gramophone disc. Clearly these are the recordings made in the years following the successful production of the gramophone record. The film credits indicate that the photography was by Littlejohns and the commentary was provided by Nigel Lovell. This film was produced by the Commonwealth Cinema and Photographic Branch and is listed in the National Library of Australia collection as 'a comprehensive account of the life of the Australian lyre bird'. A 1942 copy held in the National Collection of Screen and Sound (Cover title No. 2833) indicates, in summary, that the ' film shows the behaviour of the lyrebird, including the courtship displays and parenting. The footage of the lyrebirds was taken in Sherbrooke forest, Victoria and took 3 years to make'. Other productions followed with, for example, 'Forest Fantasia' a film released in 1943. In this film the photography was by Roy A. Driver and it was Directed and Produced by Charles Herschell with Herschells Films Pty Ltd being the production company. It was again approximately 8 minutes long, black and white but was released on 25fps 35mm film (National Collection of Screen and Sound Cover title No. 11908). The catalogue summary for this copy indicates that the film is about '(t)he Australian lyrebird and its song recorded in natural surroundings in the Sassafras Forest in Victoria.'

The Undiscovered records

The whereabouts of the sound-film used for the broadcast in 1931 and the sound-film used to produce the gramophone records is unknown. That is, if either of these items still exists. Technical details on the methods and equipment used by Australian Sound Films for the field recordings in 1931–4, under the supervision of Ray Littlejohns, is almost completely undocumented and the equipment and methods used by the Australian Broadcasting Company, in association with Tom Tregellas, in these same years is, also, almost completely undocumented. Surely, there must be more information on the production of the two gramophone records? The widely known 10–inch was produced by Herschells in Australia and the less well known 12–inch disc was manufactured by Decca in England.
It would be fascinating to uncover and put on record at least some of these missing details and maybe locate some of the original materials associated with these two historic events in Australia.


We wish to thank John Disney, Ted Carthew and Ron Strahan for their help during our searches of the Ray Littlejohns and Michael Sharland archives now deposited with The Australian Museum in Sydney. We thank Bob Tomkins, Australian Broadcasting Commission, TV sales and Archives in Melbourne, for many discussions concerning the circumstances of broadcasts by the ABC from Sherbrooke Forest in the early 1930s.


Allen, J. 1931. The Lyre-bird Broadcasts. The Sydney Mail, Wednesday, July 29, 1931: 20
Bradley H. & I. Bradley. (undated). The Lyrebird. A pamphlet of five A4 pp, produced by Wildlife Watch, Belgrave, with assistance from the Shire of Sherbrooke
Brand, Albert R. 1938. Progress in recording voices of American birds. Proc. 9th Int. Orn. Congress, Rouen 1938, pp 97-100
[Chisholm, A. H.] 1931. Reception in Sydney Emu 31: 147
Dove, H. Stuart 1931. The Lyrebird Calls. Emu 31: 147
Littlejohns, R. T. 1932a. Recording the Song of the Lyrebird. Emu 31: 247–8
Littlejohns, R. T. 1932b. Recording the Song of the Lyre Bird. Aust. Mus. Mag. 4: 371
Littlejohns, R. T. 1932c. Second Recording of the Lyrebird’s song. Emu 32: 62–3
Littlejohns, R. T. 1933. The Magic Voice. A story of the Australian Lyre-Bird. Ramsey: Melbourne, 40 pp
Littlejohns, R. T. 1938. The Lyrebird, Australia’s wonder-songster. Angus & Roberston: Sydney, 12 pp +30 plates.
Littlejohns, R. T. 1943. Lyrebirds calling from Australia Robertson & Mullens: Melbourne, 40 pp
Sharland, M. [S.R.] 1931. Lyrebird’s Mimicry Recorded. Emu 31: 146–7
Sharland, M. [S. R.] 1962. Correspondence. First Lyrebird broadcast. Emu 61: 339-40
Sharland, M. [S. R.] 1981. Memories of Tom Tregellas. The Aust. Bird Watcher 9: 103–9
Smith, L. H. 1968. The Lyrebird. Lansdowne Press: Melbourne, 115 pp
Whittell, H. M. 1954. The Literature of Australian Birds; a history and a bibliography of Australian ornithology. Paterson Brokensha, Perth. 788 pp

A selection of newspaper clippings from the time of the first recording and broadcast of Superb Lyrebird song.
Clockwise from top left: Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) 30 June 1931;
The Argus 2 July 1931; SMH 8 July 1931;
SMH 28 July 1931 and SMH 7 July 1931.

The Herschells 78 rpm disc

The History and Song of The Lyre Bird – Australia’s greatest songster