The previous post showcased my wildlife photography from the trip, but I do take iPhone snapshots of just fun and leisure. Here you go …
It’s been awhile, again. As promised, I wanted to do a little recap of my third trip to Malaysia, an adventure that was initially chronicled daily but quickly became less reliably documented. As bemoaned previously, typing the blog on my iPad and never figuring out the issue with Squarespace on iPad that prevented me from being able to add images to my text made me less motivated to blog. I’m not going to revisit the whole trip here, but instead will add some of my favorite wildlife images with some information on the animals depicted.
After visiting Malaysia in 2015 (Langkawi Island only) and 2017 (Sarawak, Borneo before Langkawi), my 2019 trip began on Penang Island. My primary photographic interest is macrophotography - taking photos of very small things like arachnids and insects at life-size (1:1) and sometimes employing a 2.5X magnifier (Raynox DCR-250) to enter the world of supermacrophotography. Although not truly macrophotography, I also broaden the scope of my primary imaging to include things as large as snakes. In other words, any images captured using my Tokina 100mm f/2.8 1:1 macro lens I lump into my world of macrophotography. This basically includes tiny jumping spiders to adult rattlesnakes.
The item I needed most to take my macrophotography to the next level was a good flash diffuser. Harsh light is the bane of photography and photographers of all types are constantly looking to have the softest most even light in their images. Portrait photographers employ huge softboxes, etc. and macrophotographers and look for something that will surround their subjects with soft light. I have a number of units appropriate for my snake photos including a knock-off of the F-stoppers Flash Disc and other softbox diffusers that mount to my Nikon SB900 speedlight, but I needed something designed for close-up photography for smaller subjects. Every macrophotographer that I admire has some sort of DIY diffuser that is constantly evolving and I looked at what was being used by my favorite photographers. I contacted a few that had built amazing diffusers and then discovered that one of them actually was marketing his design and selling it through a local camera store. As luck would have it, he was from Penang, Malaysia and the camera store was in George Town, Penang just a taxi ride from the hotel where I spent the first four nights of this trip. So my Malaysia III images would benefit from an amazing diffuser I picked up for 180RM (about $43), saving me the frustration of buying the polypropylene plastic sheets and other stuff and trying to rebuild the wheel. Alex Goh’s design includes sturdy snaps so the diffuser can be quickly assembled/disassembled and stored flat for travel. And it is exactly what I needed.
The one-inch long little flower mantis seen above was photographed within the first hour of using my new Alex Goh Macro Diffuser. I spent the morning at Hotel Equatorial experimenting with subjects found on their little nature trail and found that I could reduce my flash output to 1/4-1/16 power for great results. Insects and leaves are both reflective and here you can see great detail without any bright flash hot spots that I would have had if I was using my old ring flash or some lesser diffuser.
The next two images were captured just after the flower mantis. All of these images were sent via Bluetooth directly from my camera body (Nikon D500) to the Nikon Snapbridge app on my iPhone and have no post-processing other than compositional cropping.
After shooting these small insects for some time I came across a much larger subject. African Giant Land Snails are invasive species in other parts of the world and they were among the landscaping of the hotel. As I didn’t need to get so close and the diffuser therefore wouldn’t surround my subject, it was the first time I unsnapped the bottom piece that hangs and circles below the lens and used just the primary diffuser area to ensure my flash didn’t bounce back too much off of the hard shiny shell of the four-inch long snail.
Hotel Equatorial Penang was a great hotel and it was a treat to have both the nature trail there where I took the above photos and great vistas overlooking the golf club with the sea in the background. The breakfast buffet was amazing and we spent a lot of time in full-on holiday mode, sipping cocktails poolside. Even when drinking and relaxing I like to have a camera nearby and thankfully I was able to capture an image of a Clouded Monitor Lizard that was foraging for earthworms in the grass beside the pool area.
Our first group outing on Penang was to have some fabulous street food and that is when I visited HIKE Enterprise to pick up the macro diffuser. Our driver then took us on some scenic tour of George Town, the population center of Penang, but I am one, a terrible passenger, and two, not much on history or urban areas. But the next day we all (14) had a different driver with a very large van to take us to Entopia, the butterfly park at the northwest end of the island. There I was able to put my new macrophotography set-up to more use.
The following day the same driver took us back through George Town and on to the north for a trip to Penang Botanical Gardens followed by a trip up Penang Hill (Bukit Bendera).
At the Botanical Gardens I wandered off alone in hopes of finding snakes off the path, but instead found dragonflies and a land planarian to photograph. Land planarians are terrestrial flatworms often called “hammerhead or arrowhead worms”. They are hunters that attack their invertebrate prey using both brute force and a combination of the adhesive and digestive properties of their mucus.
From the entrance gate to the gardens we took “jeep” rides up Penang Hill. It’s about three miles of extremely steep and winding paved road and a fleet of small off-road pickup trucks ferry people to the top. There Mark Pennell and his brother-in-law Alan and I broke away from our group after an arrival beer and lunch to look for critters. The goal was to find tarantulas and we succeeded in locating the terrestrial species of Penang Hill, Coremiocnemis cunicularia, in embankment burrows.
After four days on Penang our group of fourteen, thirteen Bristolians from England’s west country and this intrepid American, boarded a very short flight north to Langkawi Island. We were later joined there by two more Bristolians to bring our party’s size to sixteen for two weeks at the amazing Berjaya Langkawi Beach Resort. It was my third visit, but Mark had been visiting Berjaya for more than 15 years and most of his family and friends had been there perhaps eight or ten times. We get treated very well, to say the least. Mark’s sister Chris celebrated her 60th birthday during our stay and we had an amazing sunset buffet dinner on the beach where the Tiger beer never stopped flowing and the catering staff outdid themselves and a three-piece band serenaded us.
But I’m not much on pool and beach and lobby cocktails. I’m after wildlife, I’m into hiking, I am looking for photographic subjects. Fortunately, you don’t have to go far as the lush tropical forest grounds of Berjaya are teaming with nature. The three most obvious mammals are the two monkey species - the gentle Dusky Leaf Monkey aka Spectacled Langur and the much less placid Long-tailed or Crab-eating Macaque - and the unique Sunda Colugo or Flying Lemur.
Despite often being called a flying lemur, the Colugo (aka Cobego) is not a lemur and cannot fly. It is a very strong glider that leaps and glides from tree to tree at night to feed on tender leaves, shoots, flowers, tree sap and fruits. Walking after dark and seeing these 1-2 kg mammals glide down and bank onto a tree trunk is an amazing experience. Their wingspan is more than two feet and they can glide for over 200 feet without losing much altitude. During the day it clings to the tree bark using the camouflage of its fur to remain undetected by predators. The two species - Sunda and Philippine - belong to two different genera, and combined the two extant colugos are the only members of their family (Cynocephalidae) and even their order (Dermoptera).
It is fascinating just how many gliding animals there are in Southeast Asia. In Malaysia there are of course true flying mammals - bats including the colugo-sized flying foxes, but those that have evolved methods of gliding from tree to tree include squirrels, snakes, lizards and frogs. We were fortunate to see a Paradise Flying Snake (Chrysopelea paradisi) at Berjaya plus a number of Draco sp. “flying” lizards, as well as the Red Flying Squirrel.
When it comes to monkeys on Langkawi there are two: one which is an evil shit and the other beautiful and lovely. Macaques live in matriarchal societies and males are shunned from their groups after reaching puberty. This results in lone males living in isolation and often becoming very territorial and aggressive. Macaques will eat just about anything and scavenge through trash making an enormous mess and will confront and attack humans to grab their food or drink. I have been charged my big male macaques. I may be ten times their weight, probably more like 15, but they don’t care. With teeth bared they will charge and unfortunately one of our party got hurt when he fell a good distance while running from them. I mentioned in another blog entry that one male that had been harassing people by the pool got in a confrontation with another monkey and left it with a bloody pulp of a foot. I love all animals, but - yeah - macaques are evil shits.
The beautiful and lovely monkey is the Dusky Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus), which is also known as the Spectacled Langur. Technically, it is not a true langur but rather a lutung so I prefer referring to them as leaf monkeys, which is a reference to their preferred diet. They are peaceful monkeys that are usually found higher in the trees than the macaques, but around the resort they come to ground and accept fruit and nuts handed to them by tourists. Feeding wildlife is wrong and always a bad idea. In the case of the resort monkeys, it is too likely that someone will have a leaf monkey gently take an orange slice one day and think that is the coolest experience ever and then have disastrous results when it tries to hand something to an aggressive macaque.
Before the trip Mark told me of seeing a white Dusky Leaf Monkey during his June 2018 visit. We inquired about this monkey when we arrived but nobody had seen it in at least four months. Then one day while Mark, Alan and I were walking the grounds photographing the “flying” lizards or dragons (Draco sp.), one of the shuttle drivers stopped to tell us that the white “langur” had been seen near the guard gate at the resort’s entrance. We asked to jump in his shuttle and get a ride down there and were lucky to find the troop that included the female white monkey seeking midday shade and some tender leaves to snack on in a large tree near the large parking lot. I call this monkey “hypomelanistic”, meaning that it has reduced melanin or black pigment. It isn’t an albino or its feet, etc. would be pink, as would its eyes. Many people would call it leucistic, but that condition usually results in bluish eyes and this monkey definitely had normal dark eyes. Regardless of what obscure term you want to apply, it was a stunning monkey. Interestingly, it was noticeably the largest of the dozen or more in the group, and it didn’t like when other monkeys would come to close to it. It kept moving to where it could sit alone.
One of the outings I was looking most forward to on Langkawi Island was a return to the mangroves of Tanjung Rhu along the north coast of the island. Langkawi sits on the Andaman Sea (Strait of Malacca) off the northwest coast of peninsular Malaysia as close to Thailand as it is to Malaysia. When I visited two years ago we took a boat into these mangroves and were lucky enough to find a Mangrove Pitviper. This year we hoped to see one again. We were not disappointed - we observed three!
We also saw Common Water Monitors, White-bellied Sea Eagles, Brahminy Kites and drove out across the sea to a small island to see some roosting Flying Foxes, but besides the Mangrove Pitvipers the highlight of our boat adventure in Tanjung Rhu was Mark’s niece Emily spotting a female Hyllus diardi, one of the largest jumping spider species. It occurs in a variety of habitats but is most common in mangroves. I didn’t have my new macro diffuser with me and shooting from a rocking longboat isn’t easy, so the one-inch salticid was captured in a small jar and I photographed it back at Berjaya. Jumping Spiders are my favorite photographic subjects and these images are my trip favorites.
While staying at Berjaya I also took three evening hikes up through the nearby Oriental Village, into the forest and then up to Telaga Tujuh or Seven Wells Waterfall. The first two trips were with Mark and Alan and the last was alone on my last night in Malaysia. We observed a great deal of wildlife including Oriental Pied and Great Hornbills, monkeys, various bats, Tokay Geckos, etc., but for me the most interesting were the spiders and the scorpions. In addition to the local terrestrial tarantula (Chilobrachys sp.) we saw several times of huntsman spiders (Sparassidae) including two prize species - the Lichen Huntsman (Pandercetes sp.) and one of my favorite true spiders, Heteropoda lunula. Also photographed were a couple of Tokay Geckos. These huge geckos are often seen around the resort and I’d take voucher photos for iNaturalist with my iPhone, but I don’t really like photographing lizards on buildings, even if they are foot-long grey and rust-orange beasts with giant heads. So, it was also great to find Tokay Geckos on tree trunks during our night hikes and get some natural in situ photos.
This certainly has become a photo blog. I just want to leave you with a couple more images from Langkawi. One is from the incredible sighting of a Reticulated Python killing an Oriental Pied Hornbill. Our group was meeting for dinner and as one couple was walking from chalet to lobby Julie was snapping photos of the resort with her iPhone. Just then a hornbill landed on the ground and she aimed her phone at the huge bird while continuing to snap pictures. To her surprise/shock/horror about an eight-foot long python came out of the rocks and attacked the bird. I was still in my room so Mark texted me while Kim ran up to my chalet. By the time I arrived on the scene all the human commotion had caused the snake to release the dead hornbill and disappear back into the rocks. But before those images (captured by Mark and his niece Emily), how about a giant cockroach, cicada, tree crab and a young tarantula in its burrow mouth?
I write this on a nice iMac at Hong Kong International Airport. I am always amazed at how far behind American airports are with regards to things like free WiFi, charging stations and free computers. Here at HKIA you can’t walk 100 yards without connectivity, filtered water filling stations and other creature comforts.
In a couple hours I will complete my journey back to O’Hare Airport in Chicago. I have left 30ºC and am headed for MINUS THIRTY DEGREES CELCIUS. But it’s the time travel that always seems even odder. I will leave Hong Kong at about noon Monday and arrive in Chicago just after noon Monday. Fourteen hour time difference, fourteen and a half hour flight.
I do notice the weather change though. I actually had a chill while trying to sleep overnight at HKIA, the first time I haven’t been hot and sweaty in three week. The weather in Malaysia was perfect, albeit more humid even during the dry season than I am accustomed to. Curled up uncomfortably in the wee hours of the morning on an airport chair I actually wished I had the hoodie that is in my checked bag. When I arrive in frigid Chicago some seventeen hours from now I am going to wish I had a lot more than that hoodie, but I don’t.
I left Langkawi first thing Sunday morning. Mark & Kim came down to the lobby to see me off. They and the other thirteen Bristolians in our party wouldn’t leave for another eight hours or so. I flew Malaysia Airlines from Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur (one hour), had an eight hour layover in KL at an airport I don’t like at all, then had a four hour flight via Malaysia Airlines here to HKIA. Another twelve hours here at perhaps my second favorite airport after Dubai (or maybe it’s just that I’ve had time to get very familiar with it), I now wait for that 14.5 hour Cathay Pacific flight to Chicago.
My last night in Langkawi I hiked back up to Seven Wells and the Waterfall above Oriental Village alone. It was my third trip up there and in addition to the Heteropoda and Pandercetes sp. huntsman spiders and other creepy crawlies we had been seeing, the highlight was stopping to watch some Oriental Pied Hornbills and monkeys way up in the canopy and then seeing a pair of Great Hornbills join them. Oriental Pieds are huge birds - larger than most hawks - but they are the smallest of the three hornbill species that can be found on Langkawi. The Great Hornbill is massive - bald eagle sized. When it flaps its wings for lift to rise in the rainforest the thump and swoosh is unmistakable and impressive.
I’ll try to write a bit of a trip summary with images when I recover after my return. I said I wouldn’t make excuses as to why I didn’t keep my promise/intention to blog each and every day, but one reason definitely was not being able to figure out how to embed images when composing on my iPad. This entry is the first of the trip written on a computer with an actual keyboard so just typing was also problematic.
Ok. I suck. I could make excuses about why my promised, alleged, intended daily blog entries during Malaysia III have failed. There are loads of plausible reasons. But, I just suck.
I truly had hoped to share daily, but I also selfishly just wanted to have a journal of each day’s activities. I’m old. Memory fails.
I certainly can’t recollect well enough to recount each day now, four days or so after my last post. There was beer and beach and pool and, of course, wildlife and photography. Tuesday night we even had an amazing private beach buffet dinner for Mark Pennell’s sister Chris’ 60th birthday.
Two evenings stand out for me though. Mark, his brother-in-law Alan (Chris’ husband) and I made two treks from Berjaya through the nearby Oriental Village to a jungle path and up to Seven Wells Waterfall. Both last night and the first trip, we met in the resort lobby at 6:30 and got back at about 11 pm, tired and sweaty and telling our group assembled in the hotel lobby bar tales of spiders, scorpions and bats. The Chilobrachys tarantulas haven’t been as easy to find as during previous visits and we have so far failed to observe Omothymus tree tarantulas, but we have found Heteropoda and Pandercetes huntsman spiders incredibly abundant, their astonishing camouflage betrayed by the eye shine caused by our flashlight beams.
I have failed to find snakes at night (an amazing snake story will follow, however), but we have seen frogs, Tokay and flat-tailed house geckos, bamboo rats, bats, etc. Our two night walks have been the highlight of the visit for me.
OK - snake story. Monday night as our group was heading from our individual chalets to meet in the lobby for dinner, one couple was taking numerous iPhone snapshots during the walk. Just clicking images of the grounds and the spectacular view of the pool, beach and Burau Bay on the Andaman Sea where we are so fortunate to be. As Julie snapped her series of photos an Oriental Pied Hornbill landed on the ground and she pointed her iPhone camera its way. These are spectacular birds. Even though it is the smallest of the three species of hornbills found on the island, hey still are larger than a small dog. What Julie could have never expected was that she would see that Hornbill killed as just then a Reticulated Python attacked and thrust its shiny coils around it quickly constricting the doomed bird. Others in our party came over and many iPhones became pointed at the coils of python wrapped around the majestic black and white bird with huge ivory bill. I actually wasn’t there as I had a very late lunch/early dinner in Oriental Village and wasn’t joining the group dinner. I was in my room when Mark texted me and I threw on clothes just as Kim knocked on my chalet. Sadly, by the time I arrived at the scene about two minutes walk from my chalet the snake had been disturbed enough to release the now dead Hornbill and crawl into a subterranean cave beneath ornamental rocks that had been cemented together. This is right next to the prayer building and 50 yards from the pool!
I have tried to see the python again to no avail. Based on the size of the bird and the photos and videos the amazed onlookers captured, I would guess that the snake was about eight feet long (retics are slender for length). It’s amazing that it lives in a resort with a almost 500 chalets and a staff of several hundred and is not seen again. But the grounds are heavily forested and landscaped and wildlife is abundant. Large monitors visit the pool so a python beneath the Muslim prayer room isn’t unusual, I suppose.
Our group are on a private sunset cruise on the Andaman Sea right now, but I declined to join them for a number of reasons. I did do it on my other two visits. I know they’re having a blast and I have enjoyed a peaceful day alone, doing what I enjoy.
I am behind a couple of days, but the past few days of been mostly holiday relaxation. Pool, beach, pool, walks into Oriental Village, pool, beach, pool. Thursday evening dinner en masse at the hotel’s Oriental Pearl restaurant, last night our entire group - which now numbers sixteen after another couple’s arrival yesterday - dinner again at the Beach Brassiere where we have breakfast.
This morning five of us, Mark and daughter Elli, his brother-in-law Alan and his daughter Emily, and one tattooed American naturalist are going up to the mangroves at the northwest of this island to look for Flying Foxes and one of my chief targets, the Mangrove Viper (Trimeresurus purpeomaculatus). We will be guided by Wendy Chin who we have spent time with over the past handful of years. Her operation is appropriately dubbed Langkawi Nature Guide and Alan, Emily and Mark’s sister Chris joined her two nights ago for some “owling”. They saw both types of Civet, giant red flying squirrels, nightjar and two species of owl among other things like Greater and Wreathed Hornbills. When I was here two years ago we took the longboat trip with Wendy into the mangroves and I was able to photograph one specimen of the purplish-brown Mangrove Viper. She messaged Mark yesterday afternoon after seeing them and we booked an outing for this morning.
Speaking of hornbills, there are three species here. The two that Alan & Co. saw the other night up the mountain (Gunung Raya) with Wendy are less often observed, whereas the Oriemtal Pied Hornbill is most abundant and often seen around our resort. It is the smallest of the three species, but is still one helluva large bird. Each evening just before dusk they often can be found near the hotel lobby and as I walked to dinner last night I saw a dozen or more.
Although the past two days have been pretty chill, I did have both a morning and then an after dinner walk on little jungle trail that is at the western edge of the resort. There I am looking for the Beautiful Viper (Trimeresurus venustus). Yesterday Alan and Mark and I also walked up to Seven Wells waterfall area, and found a handful of tarantula burrows but were unable to observe any and did not attempt to extract. I’ll go back at night so I might photograph without disturbing them.
Yesterday I was able to get good images of both species of monkey found on Langkawi — the Dusky or Spectacled Leaf Monkey (Trachypithecus obscurus) and the Long-tailed or Crab-eating Macaque (Macaca fascicularius). I’ll try for the Oriental Pied Hornbill this evening — last night I just filmed with iPhone for Instagram story. I’m also hoping to see otters on the beach before long and who knows what we will see today?