Siberian ornithology -
Australian style, 1903

Libby Robin and Anna Sirina*

(Russian version)


1. Route of expedition ** 2. Traditional housing, Jarkutsk area? 3. Horse and wagon transport

An extraordinary trip

In the northern summer of 1903, the distinguished Australian ornithologist Robert Hall (1867-1949) and his young assistant R. E. (Ernie) Trebilcock (1880-1976), took a very long detour on a voyage from Australia to England. Hall was the author of a number of ornithological publications, and co-author of some books on nature study. He also had excellent museum connections having worked in 1901 at the Queensland museum and also accompanied several major ornithological collecting expeditions. He was not afraid of difficult terrains having travelled with a Norwegian expedition to Kerguelen Island in the sub- Antarctic in 1897 and to the uninhabited Houtman Abrolhos islands 60 kilometres off the coast at Geraldton, Western Australia in 1899. He was aware of the shortage of specimens of Siberian birds in the British Museum, and persuaded Ernie Trebilcock to accompany him on a collecting mission that he was sure would pay handsomely. Travelling by rail, barge and on foot, all the way to the mouth of the Lena River proved a very expensive, however, and, although they had hoped to make a profit from the side-trip, the sale of the collection of over 400 birds only just covered their costs.


Migratory birds

They went to Siberia with a particular interest in certain waders (shorebirds). Because the birds bred so far from their non-breeding habitats, neither the British Museum nor any major museum in Australia or Russia had skins of the birds in their distinctive breeding colours. Although Hall and Trebilcock knew the birds from their south-eastern Australian haunts (particularly from wetlands near Werribee), and believed them to breed in Siberia, exact locations of breeding colonies were unknown in 1903. It is now known that more than forty species of wading birds migrate each year from Australia to breed in the far north in Siberia and Alaska. After the short northern hemisphere summer they return south for the rest of the year from September through to April. Their annual round trip is some 25,000 kilometres, and some of the birds are as tiny as 30-40 grams. The Australian climate, particularly in the arid centre is very unpredictable, with very little or no rain in some years. These birds have found an evolutionary advantage in the reliable short northern summers, where the long daylight of June/July regularly triggers the breeding of mosquitoes, and the boggy tundra is largely free of major predators. They travel thousands of kilometres year after year, to lay eggs and raise their young in these food-rich, icy wastes.


4. Collecting birds in a forest clearing 5. Sharp tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata 6. Music aboard the Lena River barge

Travels with mosquitos

The mosquitoes are wonderful for birds, but terrible for people and animals. 'They settle on the gun barrel so thickly that you can't see the sight,' Ernie Trebilcock, the young Australian ornithologist complained in his diary on 18 June, 1903 (p. 19). 'Even the Jarkuts' horses suffer from [mosquito] bites, & you see the poor animals standing almost over the smouldering fires that the Jarkuts light for that purpose'(24 June, p. 32). He and Hall also found the boggy tundra heavy-going: Our waggon sank to the axles, & once we had to un-harness the horses to get one of them out of a bog. In crossing a creek the waggon lurched & sent some of our luggage into the mud, & a little further on it upset most of it into the water. The result was that as soon as we reached some firm ground we pitched our mosquito tents & lit a large fire to dry our luggage…we had to try to sleep without rugs that night. On all sides was swamp. Mosquitoes were in millions. They struggled on conscious that they were '3,000 miles from the nearest railway station' on 21 June (pp. 25-6). It took them five months to get there and the same to get home (via England). 'The birds would be [in Australia] before us', Hall commented wryly. When they finally located a breeding ground of the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata, they only had two hours to collect. Here they saw chicks and collected a female on an island in the mouth of the Lena River. This was some 50 years before Russian ornithologist K.A. Vorobiev officially identified this area as a breeding ground for waders.


7. Robert Hall with guide in Corea on his way to Siberia 8. Jarkuts people at home 1903 9. 'Swallows (Chelidon urbica) nesting under the eaves in hundreds. Saw 42 nests in 7 yards.' Jarkutsk 19/6/1903 (diary, p. 21)

The cultures of the north meet Australians

What they found in the far north was not just the birds, but also many new cultures: About ten versts [= 10 kilometres] from Jarkutsk is a real Skopt village. Here were several mills driven by means of a horse walking up the side of a large wheel placed not quite horizontally but at an incline. (p. 32). The Skopts are total abstainers, & vegetarians - neither do they smoke. They are perpetual exiles. They generally are very fat, wear no beards no moustaches. (p. 101) They stayed with local families in Jarkutsk - one of whom was the Karle family, who were 'German settlers in Russia & were transported here for some offence or other' (p.32). Their own foreignness did not go unremarked, but they were very favourably treated by authorities: We found that the police had been making inquiries about us as they had received a wire from Irkutsk notifying our intention of going to Jarkutsk, & as we had not presented ourselves to them they came to look for us! Want to know whether they can give us any assistance! (p. 31)



10. The collecting team with guns and birds, Robert Hall centre (with cap) 11. Later portrait of Robert Hall (c. 1912), when he was Curator, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and President of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union.

Before long they were the guest of the Chief of Police, who invited them to his home and gave 'Mr. Hall a fine lot of photos from which very good lantern slides can be made.' (p. 33). Although the most difficult times for the ornithologists were when they camped out with the mosquitoes, sleeping on the barges travelling for long distances up the Lena River was very difficult, especially when a storm struck on 2 July: Storm last night. So bad that we had to run under bank for shelter. River 25 versts across here - quite large waves. The men on board are no sailors - allowed the heavy grapnel to swing against the ship's bows all night.'(p. 45). The Jarkuts who piloted the barge may not have been sailors in keeping the boat 'ship shape', but they were very good navigators: 'There is no proper chart of this river & probably never will be, as it is continually altering its course' (p. 46). Even basic things like food were strange for the Australians. Although he enjoyed 'caviere', Trebilcock could not eat the black bread: Can't get white bread here at all, & think ourselves lucky if we can get brown. This is made from a mixture of wheat & rye flour & is not bad if fresh & well-baked. Often however it was neither and was then rather sour. It was nevertheless better than black bread (chorny klep) which is made from rye alone (p. 5).


The exotic stories they brought back about both birds and people entertained Australian audiences in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and elsewhere for many years afterwards. A highlight of the Adelaide Ornithological Congress in 1905 was Robert Hall's public lecture, 'A Naturalist's Tour through Japan, Corea, Manchuria and Siberia. Illustrated by Lantern Slides from Unique Photos taken by the Lecturer while travelling in the Far East, and the Land of the Czar'. Tickets were sold at one shilling 'in aid of the Colored Plate Fund of The Emu' (the new journal of the Australasian Ornithologists' Union). The same year, the South Australian Register reported that Hall had [with Trebilcock's assistance] collected 402 species in Manchuria and Siberia and 'made the first list of birds for that country . . . and had been favourably reported upon in London'. Hall also lectured with over one hundred lantern slides in Sydney in 1904.


The Trebilcock Legacy

Both Hall and Trebilcock took photographs and some of the glass plates have survived the intervening century in the archives of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union (now Birds Australia). Along with the slides, Ernie Trebilcock's beautifully clear, hand-written diary has survived. Both the images and the diary, along with some family correspondence are now held in the Manuscript Collections of the La Trobe Library at the State Library of Victoria. (MS 9247: RAOU Archives Trebilcock collection).

Actual pages from the diary here (each image is about 140k):

Page 55 | Page 56 | Page 78 | Page 79

You can read a transcription of the entire diary here: Trebilcock Diary (PDF 400k)



This site has been prepared with the generous support of the Manuscripts Collection, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, Melbourne (where the original manuscript and historical photographs are located) and Birds Australia. We would like to thank Gerard Hayes, Jock Murphy and Dianne Reilly from the La Trobe Library and Rosanne Walker (who transcribed the diary). I am also grateful to Darrell Lewis, Tony Marshall and Janet Middleton for information about other sources. Deborah Rose sponsored Anna Sirina's fellowship at CRES, thus making the Russian/Australian collaboration possible. The National Library of Australia, Canberra supplied and granted permission for the publication of the portraits of Hall. All other historic images are reproduced with permission from the State Library of Victoria.

Further reading

Hall, Robert, 'Through Siberia', Victorian Geographical Journal, Vol XXII Part I, 1904, 25-31, with discussion 31-33.

R. E. Trebilcock 'An Australian in Siberia 1903' [includes biographical material about Trebilcock, and extracts from the letters with the diary] in La Trobe Library Journal 10(38), Spring 1986, pp 35-39.

Robin, Libby, The Flight of the Emu: One hundred years of Australian ornithology 1901-2001, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2001.

Sharland, Michael, 'Memories of Robert Hall', Australian Bird Watcher, September 1978, p. 222-8.

[Sharland, Michael - MS], 'Robert Hall', Emu 49, October 1949, pp 144-5.

For Hall and Trebilcock's work in Korea see:
P. R. Sweet, J. W. Duckworth, T. J. Trombone and L. Robin (2007), ‘The Hall collections of birds from Wonsan, central Korea, in spring 1903’, Forktail, 23, 129-134.

Whittell, Hubert Massey, The Literature of Australian Birds: A History and a Bibliography of Australian Ornithology, Perth: Paterson Brokensha, 1954.

* Authors Affiliations

Libby Robin, Fenner School of Environment & Society,
Australian National University, Canberra 0200, Australia.
(Corresponding author) E-mail:


Anna Sirina, Department of Siberian Studies, N. N. Mikluoho-Maclay Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Leninsky Prospect 32-A, 117334 Moscow, Russia

** Image source information

2. Traditional housing, ?Jarkutsk area, 1903. [Manuscripts Collection No. 9247, La Trobe Library, State Library of Victoria, hereafter MS 9247, LTL, SLV]
3. Horse and wagon transport Siberia 1903 [MS 9247, LTL, SLV]
4. Collecting birds in a forest clearing, Siberia 1903 [MS 9247, LTL, SLV]
6. Music aboard the Lena River barge 1903 [MS 9247, LTL, SLV]
7. Robert Hall with guide in Corea on his way to Siberia 1903 [Photograph by R E Trebilcock, courtesy NLA]
8. Jarkuts people at home 1903 [MS 9247, LTL, SLV]
9. 'Swallows (Chelidon urbica) nesting under the eaves in hundreds. Saw 42 nests in 7 yards.' Jarkutsk 19/6/1903 (diary, p. 21) [MS 9247, LTL, SLV]
10. The collecting team with guns and birds, Robert Hall centre (with cap), 1903. [MS 9247, LTL, SLV]
11. Later portrait of Robert Hall (c. 1912), when he was Curator, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and President of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union. [National Library of Australia]





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