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Ushering The New Year in Taiwan

It’s a totally different feeling in a different country when I ushered in 2017. The last New Year ushered me in to Taiwan, where I have been living for the last one year. My adventures brought me to a place where I could discover my roots as a Peranakan (Straits Settlement Chinese), not knowing any ancestral Chinese practices prior to 5 generations ago. My great great grandpa had immigrated to Malaya (What Malaysia was prior to 1963 when we combined Sabah & Sarawak to form Malaysia) from Fujian (Hokkien, a province in China) in the 1800’s, sent my great grandpa, Peter Lim Teow Chong to Penang Free School where he also became the school captain, and onward to Kuala Lumpur with historical records of him being the first court interpreter in 1901.

I started an intensive Mandarin course that intensified not only my language capability but my own understanding of a culture that was not quite there for me not knowing why things are done in ways that couldn’t be explained by my Western influenced late dad, neither could it be articulated by my late mom for she was always busy making food or going out to play mahjong with her friends. Questions like why do we celebrate Chinese New Year or why do we have to have specific kinds of foods served during then or why do we do things this way and not that way, never really had an answer because the customs and practices were handed down by parents and grandparents and their parents who were educated and taught in English. The culture began to unfold itself from what’s ingrained in the Chinese characters as I will be finishing my 3rd term after Chinese New Year.

Grabbing my monopod (because I left my tripod in Malaysia), a chair and thermal mug of hot chocolate, my housemate and I went up Xiangshan ?? to the lookout platform and made our way through the enthusiastic crowd who had already gathered an hour before to find a place to park till countdown.

Sorry for the vibrations as I had to jostle with the crowd to get that window of opportunity to capture this. Hope you had a great start to the New Year!

Fortress of Seoul

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An ancient map of Seoul.

When dynasties once ruled the empire of Goryeo (what Korea was named once), kings were born & thrones were fought for. King Taejo Yi Seonggye declared a new dynasty in 1392 under the name of Joseon, thus reviving an older dynasty also known as Joseon that was founded four thousand years previously and renamed it to “Kingdom of Great Joseon”. He established himself a palace, known as Gyeongbokgung which served as the main palace for successor Kings of the Joseon dynasty and their households until it was systematically destroyed & burnt to ruins during the Japanese invasion. Restoration & reconstruction work began after it was left derelict for centuries & it stands as the most beautiful & the grandest of all five palaces in Korea today.

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Walking alongside the fortress.

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The old & new stone blocks as part of the restoration process.

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Taejo’ is a temple name, a posthumous title used for Chinese, Korean & Vietnamese royalty. Chosen to reflect the circumstances of the emperor’s reign, it means ‘ancestors.’ In Korea, temple names are used to refer to Kings in the Goryeo & Joseon dynasties.

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One of Gyeongbokgung’s grand entrances.

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The palace was not the only grand structure he built. The foresight of King Taejo who was once a General of the army of the dynasty he overthrew, knew the grandeurs of a kingdom should be demarcated by a structure around the city he ruled. He wanted to build a fortress. He decreed & enlisted the service of one hundred ninety seven thousand four hundred (197,400) young men around the country over two years to participate in the erection of an 18 kilometre fortress with four main gates and four auxiliary gates that fell in line with the Chinese cardinal directions of East, South, West, North. They are Heunginjimun (East Gate), Sungnyemun (South Gate), Donuimun (West Gate) and Sukjeongmun (North Gate) with the East & the South gates being designated as National Treasures today. The fortress took 30 years to complete.
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Gyeonghoeru was constructed in 1412, the 12th year of the reign of King Taejong, Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, is a hall used to hold important and special state banquets during the Joseon Dynasty.

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The Throne Room.

King Taejo designated an auspicious day for the groundbreaking ceremony on 1 January 1396. The fortress was completed in 98 days after the war along the mountains of Bugaksan, Naksan, Namsan, and Inwangsan. The wall contained eight gates, all of which were originally constructed between 1396 and 1398. He ordered for the stones to be inscribed with the names of the county and prefecture responsible for constructing a given wall section, as well as the name of that section, while in the mid-Joseon, they were marked with the names of the supervisors and lead technicians, and the construction date. The inscribed stone blocks in the photo below, can be seen outside the wall, at the end section of the Naksan Trail.

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Mayor Park arriving at the start of the tour.

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Mayor Park elaborates on the history of the Fortress.

There are six walking courses or trails you can do, the Baegaksan/Bugaksan Trail, the Naksan Trail, the Namsan Trail, the Inwangsan Trail, Heunginjimun Trail & Sungnyemun Trail. We were taken on a journey along the Naksan Trail by the Mayor himself, Mr. Park Won Soon, who’s fondly loved by the people of Seoul for his candour & spontaneity. We walked along the path parallel to the section of the wall that cordoned off Ihwa Mural Village from the ‘’outer city’, marvelling at the artists who painted the stairways & walls of this village with vibrant murals, thus enlivening the place. We passed these colourful expressions either adorned with paint or mosaic-plastered on the riser of the staircase making the vertical hike not so challenging. This village was once left out in the urbanisation process, used to be seen as a backward neighbourhood but a collaboration between the public, cultural artists, the metropolitan government and the residents turned Ihwa-dong into a vibrant art village.

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Despite the fact that he overthrew the dynasty of Goryeo, and purged officials who remained loyal to the old regime, King Taejo Yi Seonggye was very much regarded as a revolutionary and a decisive ruler who deposed the inept, obsolete and crippled governing system to save the nation from many foreign forces and conflicts. His sons of different wives, fought & killed each other in a preemptive move after the death of his beloved second Queen (wife). While he was still mourning, he crowned his second son to be king but 2 years later, this King voluntarily abdicated it to his brother, Yi BangWon, who became King Taejong, the one who rightfully deserved the throne as he had demonstrated the best potential of a good ruler even during his father’s reign.

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An artisan in the village who specialises in tie-dye artwork.

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The artisan explains the colouring process.

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The Joseon period has left an indelible mark on modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues. A substantial legacy was left to the Koreans of today, with much of the modern Korean language and its dialects derived from the culture and traditions of Joseon.

This fortress, even with some parts of it torn down in the city’s development process, significant parts had been preserved as a historical reminder of the dynasty that influenced the culture of Koreans today. It has in the running to be listed as UNESCO’s World Heritage Site by 2017.

What else can you do in Seoul? Gwangjang Market food experience, silver ring smithing & kimchi making workshop in the next post as I bring you other hidden treasures!

For more information, go to Seoul Tourism’s official page of the Fortress here and download your guide book! http://bit.ly/1gc6iJl
To download the English version, you need to view the site in Korean to get to the download section because the English section of the guide book doesn’t work. I’ve simplified the process for you by including the direct download link here:- http://bit.ly/1IuQ88R

Full resolution pictures can be see in my Flickr album

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Tickling The Feather Star Open for Critters

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See the Clingfish and its pattern?

Crinoids are what divers know as Feather Stars, sporting feathery arms that sway back and forth towards the centre of the body. One of the easiest subjects to photograph, crinoids are prehistoric animals in the class of echinoderms with male and female species found clinging onto coral reef cliffs often asleep in the day or actively feeding at night. The challenge is to photograph the tenants that the Crinoid itself hosts. It’s important to note that no photograph is worth abusing the animal for so please handle your subjects with care as you would a live animal on land. Crinoids are somewhat sticky and brittle. You wouldn’t want to break any of their arms off in your quest to shoot the shrimp within so keep your buoyancy neutral and coax the star to do a grand opening for you. I will teach you how.

After witnessing so many dive guides using their swizzle sticks to roughly ‘part the arms’ of the Crinoid to show divers what it holds within, I felt compelled to write this article to educate the many of you who might follow the bad habit of disturbing nature for your pictures. I practice a minimal disturbance to no disturbances in all my shots. They are never manipulated, nor had my subjects tossed in mid water to get them flaring, fearful or angry and I implore all of you to nurture good habits. The ability to boast of your shots is in the way you photograph them, not how the shot was obtained with manipulation. When you understand marine animal behaviour, you will get your incredible shots. Having spent the last 17 years teaching and 12 years of photographing underwater, I am moving towards educating the diver of the habits that you should possess to encounter your subjects.

What you need in your gear:-
1) Dive equipment of course.
2) Carabiners/loops/holsters to streamline your dangling hoses (SPG/Octopus/reels/SMBs)
3) LED torch
4) Dive computer to record depth and time you see the animal to relocate it next time.
5) No gloves unless you are diving in 15? waters
6) Hood to keep your hair tucked away from curious octopuses
7) Any camera housed in respective cases
8) Marine life guide books

Pre-dive preparation:-
1) Clean your hands after you use sunblock
2) Secure all gadgets with lanyard in your pockets.
3) Identify the subject you want to shoot.
4) Decide with buddy how much time you want to spend on each subject and if you find your target, be considerate to allow your buddy to take shots as well.

It’s not what camera you have but your knowledge of marine life that would get you nearer to the animal. By knowing what your subject lives on and feeds on, you have already increased your chances of finding it. By knowing your reef, you would have access to the inhabitants if you know what feeds on what and when.

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The Shrimp also took on the colours and pattern of this Crinoid, Oxycomanthus Bennetti.


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Close-up crop of the shrimp.

The basis of not touching anything in your dive education has been the point of contention in dive circles as we see dive guides competing with one another to find elusive critters with their sticks/pointers and completely lifting the animal out of the sand even though it’s meant to be camouflaged. I found it deeply offensive and I usually stop following the guide to find my own interaction with critters when I am not the one guiding the trip. When marine scientists collect specimens for research, they can’t avoid touching. We are not scientists neither are we collecting any specimens but we want to document them and there would be some degree of touching (hence rule number 1 in pre-dive preparation is to have clean hands) but not to the point of harassing the animal.

Not all crinoids have critters within. There are several species that host them. One of my favourites is the Oxycomanthus bennetti. 9 out 10 animals that I find have ‘tenants’ within them! On this particular one, I found 3 different types of critters! They all form a symbiotic relationship with the host and even adapt to its colours and patterns. Two Clingfish, a shrimp and a crab (not displayed) were darting about as I got closer.

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There are 2 Clingfish in the picture and a shrimp. Can you spot them?

How do you get a Feather Star to open up its multiple arms for you? You only need to tap the spine of the arms gently & softly. As you begin tapping, be mindful that your neoprene suit doesn’t touch any of the brittle feathers or you might end up ripping the poor little thing apart. By tapping with your finger pads softly, it will begin to spread out. Your camera settings would have to be ready for the shot as you might only get one or two shots of the critters within. Set your focusing to Spot and metering to Centre-weighted. Crinoid will stay ‘open’ for you if it feels tickled in all its arms as long as you avoid touching the cilia (feathers). I use a drink stirrer with a ball tip to coax the critter (shrimp/crab/clingfish) into view from the opposite side carefully without touching the Crinoid. Once I get about 4 or 5 shots or a video if the subject is actively moving, mission is accomplished & I move on to other subjects on the reef. Minimal touching and absolutely no disturbance to the Crinoid. It will soon curl up to get back to sleep when it senses no threat.

For more on marine life and nature documentation, follow Pummkinography on Facebook or follow Pummkin on her trips!

Benzilan – The Place I Barely Remember

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Panorama of Benzilan

Hit by an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter Scale, Benzilan in Yunnan, China had temporary make-shift tents as accommodation for the people which lined the street outside our hotel. We got there at night & it was the start of a series of cold nights thereafter. And the hotel doesn’t have any lifts! I felt sorry for the guys who brought unbreakable chunky luggages. Walking up the stairs with such load is enough to bring on back pain. My room that I shared with Miss Lai was on the first floor, not that bad considering that I had brought a convertible Eminent trolley bag which I hauled up like a backpack.

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My camera backpack, the Lowepro Photo Sport 200AW was filled with 80% essentials (survival equipment) & 20% photographic gear. On the first 2 days, people on the trip got a little surprised as to why I had a relatively big pack but only carried a Samsung NX200 wherever I went. I began to whip out things…….Lifestraw™……Lifeventure Shelter 2 Bothy Bag……Gerber multitool…….Sealskinz gloves…..survival kit…….Fenix PD32 light…hiking pole…..travel pillow….thermal blanket……spork…….power bars…..soup packs……purifying tabs……Platypus drinking bag……..alcohol wipes……first aid kit…..Garmin 76CSX…..batteries….. I explained to them that survival was my priority when going out into the wilderness for my adventures. Photos are secondary.

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Nice bag, no?

If I was going to travel for an indefinite period through the cold, mountainous region, I wasn’t going to leave my safety to chance or the tour guide. If we had gotten stranded for whatever reason, at least we would have purified & filtered water to drink. I’ve never been to China before & didn’t know what to expect except that the people look very similar to me. 😀

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Angela posing.

Sandwiched between the demure Angela & the excitable Leong, their antics drove me to the toilet. I have never laughed this much, all 12 days mind you, at two contrasting individuals trying to take pictures & get along. Leong’s model-opportunisticism, both as the photographer & the one being photographed, was worthy of commend. He took very flattering shots of Angela but Angela felt that he did better with aunties & housewives making them look like stars. So the hammering begun. Leong was untameable. He went after cows, goats, yaks, whatever that moved……even other tourists, to get his portraits. He even managed to herd a bull back across the bridge over a torrential river! In witnessing such charismatic flaunts, I decided to document him. I don’t remember much about Benzilan or the journey thereafter except that I was always in stitches as the taunts & threats were continually thrown at Leong by Angela, should he not succeed at taking flattering shots of her again. Leong took his task seriously & clicked furiously to get that right shot afterwards!

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Feeling the pressure…..Leong has to perform, or else…..

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Leong succeeded to ask Alex to photograph him. Alex is a hotshot photographer!

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He got Uncle Nigel to take a shot of him too! How does he do it??? 😀
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He would make sounds through the lens hood….

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And the only time we stopped laughing was when he was deep in slumber…..

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I took him taking me.

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Benzilan was beautiful but I can only remember how much those two amigos made me laugh.

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Walking across the suspended bridge.

Arriving in Kunming, Dali & Erhai Village, China in 24hours

As far as my eyes could see out of the little pane on my window seat, we were descending into a mountainous region. Whatever I’ve seen in paintings of old China plastered on the wall of coffeeshops as I was growing up actually reflected what was before me. Landing in Kunming, Yunnan, China, my 12 day trip began. The superfluous road journey was enough to set my hip off if it weren’t for the BackJoy Posture+ seat that I had lugged along. Absolutely necessary for long car rides. Each day, we travelled between 150 – 350km, stopping along the way for scenic spots & photo opportunity. Given the chance, I would have loved to stay put longer in one place to experience the culture & life of the people.

Our first stop was at ErHai Fishing Village, a lake that the Chinese term as the sea for the never-ending sight of the horizon. Not getting much sleep from the night before when we arrived at The Ancient City of Dali (Dali Gusheng), I woke up to a temperatures too low for my liking. A cotton-loving girl donned in Uniqlo HeatTech, fleece & technical jacket is hardly anything to marvel at. I saved my waterproof ski pants for the coldest sector of my journey…….Yading, in Sichuan near the Himalayas.

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At dawn, these boats are parked by the lakeside.

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Boats parked.

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Fisherfolks row out to haul in the catch.

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Wheat clusters left by the road.

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Mode of transport for the village folks.

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Taking out the vermicelli noodles at the factory.

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Noodles hanging out to dry.

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Garbed in balaclava, beanie & hooded jacket.

This was our first stop on our long & arduous journey to Yading Nature Reserve. On the bus, there were 12 other photographers & an MPV with 6 people plus the driver. Travelling 350km upon arrival in the evening was anything but nice. The fun only began on the 3rd day when I was accosted by Leong Taoping (Long Bean Army as I called him) and the demure but bean-bashing, Angela.

Taking Your Smartphone Underwater

Spending in access of RM1,000 for your smartphone, warrants a smarter solution to protect it especially if you are going out to sea. How often have you been caught in a situation where you wished your phone (which has doubled up as your camera) was waterproof or robust? Salt water is especially corrosive & keeping it inside a big dry bag with all your other stuff may cause you to miss precious moments around you so how do you protect your phone from accidental slips into the sea or splashes that might short-circuit it?

I got a chance to take my Galaxy Note underwater (before acquiring the Sony Xperia Z1) & I tested the Dicapac DCP-WP-C2 casing that allowed me to operate the touchscreen whilst in the water. My favourite online camera shop, Shashinki, sells it for only RM80 & delivered right to your doorstep! There’s a selection of Green, White, Blue, Yellow & Pink casing & it’s no brainer which one I picked! So I decided to take it skin-diving with me!

I snorkelled to where the reefs sloped to about 8 metres deep & all the while, I can operated the touchscreen through the thick bubble atmosphere the casing created when I locked the zip-lock top. The air pocket created space between the screen & the casing. On the surface, I could still touch the ”˜shutter button’ on the screen but once I nose-dived down to 8 metres depth, the pressure flattened the air space & I couldn’t ”˜touch’ the screen again. The casing is rated to 10 metres, which to most users, is more than enough waterproofing. Not a problem as I could turn it to video & take screenshots later. Little did I know that I had filmed the video upside down because I was inverted! Here are some shots taken with the smartphone in the Dicapac casing in the water below the surface & at 8 metres.

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Just adjusted the levels of the picture, no other edits.

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Birds eye view from below the surface.

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The house reef in Tenggol!

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See my fins beneath the surface?

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At the drop-off, I managed to take a picture….

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Yours truly staring at the phone…..

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With the supplied lanyard, I never have to worry about misplacing my phone on the boat & if you drop it in the sea, it floats!

P.S. – Also good for situations where you run the risk of getting sprayed by water cannons…… 😉

Check out their range of Dicapac casings that fit your smartphone!

How To Find The Milky Way

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At Bulb mode, 57 seconds, F2.8, ISO 1000 with contrast adjusted for you to see the ”˜band.’

Recuperating from a weekend of chasing birds at the Wings of KKB Selangor Bird Race 2013, I came home with the 3rd prize of a trophy, a Deuter Pulse 40 EXP waistpack & a certificate. Seizing the day of high pressure in the atmosphere, I decided to have a go at astro photography again, now that I live so far out from the city. After dinner, we set out to look for a dark spot in the countryside in Semenyih. We set up our tripods & in the total darkness, we fumbled as the lights from our LED torches temporarily blinded us whenever we switched off for shutter release. Remembering I had the red LED setting on my Petzl e+Lite headlamp, it made it easier to operate in the dark without causing dizzy spells.

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As Earth is part of the Milky Way, we can only see speckles of dust or what our eyes can make out as haze or clouds. Looking for the ever-so-familiar sight of the Milky Way, I could only guess which part of the sky it was. I had my Google Sky Map app with me & it provided a very precise location of the constellations in the sky, relative to where I was. Here are the instructions on how to equip yourself & find the Milky Way with your eyes!

 

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The equipment I brought along with me:-

1) Camera – I used the Samsung NX200 mirrorless hybrid for this.
2) Samsung 20mm F2.8 lens
3) Manfrotto MKC3-H01 tripod with movie head
4) Asus Padfone Station
5) Petzl e+Lite headlamp (Get it from Lafuma!)
6) Folding chair

And essentials that you should have with you:-

1) Mosquito repellant.
2) Snacks & drinks to quell hunger pangs when you get too excited.
3) Blinkers to mark yourself in the dark.
4) A multitool to operate quick-release plates/screws etc.
5) Hammock & pillow if you get too sleepy waiting for clouds to pass.
6) An entourage.

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‘When observing the night sky, the term “Milky Way” is limited to the hazy band of white light some 30 degrees wide arcing across the sky (although all of the stars that can be seen with the naked eye are part of the Milky Way Galaxy). The light in this band originates from un-resolved stars and other material that lie within the Galactic plane. Dark regions within the band, such as the Great Rift and the Coalsack, correspond to areas where light from distant stars is blocked by interstellar dust.’ – wikipedia.

At different times of the month, you might be able to see it if you find Pluto & a great way to do so is to do a search in Google Sky Map app on your Android device or any other star gazing apps such as Stellarium on your laptop, to point you to the exact location in the sky relative to where you are standing. Make sure your GPS is also turned on in your device.

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At Bulb mode, 60 seconds, F2.8, ISO 800, only brightness adjusted.

If you have a bright wide angle lens, use that instead. Telephoto lenses are good for taking pictures of planets, not constellations unless you have a specific constellation that you want in a frame. I have yet to experiment with other lenses & will post an update here once I do. Depending on your settings, the general rule is, the bigger your aperture (smaller F-stop), the more light it allows but to keep the image sharp, you need to keep ISO low (800 or 640) in order to keep the blacks. A minute or less should be sufficient but then again, experiment with stopping up on the ISO or time to get the desired results.

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Then I tried to take just the stars at F8.0, 37 seconds at ISO 2000 & all I got were the constellations!

I couldn’t adjust my tripod head to tilt any further as this cluster was already too high up in the sky. Your camera may or may not allow you to have priority release of shutter regardless of whether you can focus on anything or not. In my case, my camera has to be set on Manual mode, Manual Focus & Multi Point Focusing. Adjusting the focusing ring on my lens through the CCD & LCD in the dark is a great pain. Literally, my neck was craned as I had positioned my tripod over my seat to look into my screen as it pointed upwards to the sky. A lot of the aim, is GUESSWORK. Pressing the shutter release was the start, waiting for a minute or so was expected but as soon as you press the shutter again, the camera went into a processing mode which took another minute & during this time, you shouldn’t move your camera or tripod in case the shutter hasn’t really closed yet. I heard a third sound when the processing was done. Through the 4 – 5 hours of shooting, I only managed 30+ pictures, of which only 3 or 5 were usable so don’t fret if you don’t get your pictures on the first try!

Here are some of my fluke shots, the frustration that you get after waiting for the picture to be processed…..

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Best time to plan for a starry night, weather & elements dependent, is to use a Moon Phase widget on your Android device to help you decide on the days where the moon would be below the horizon. The best time would be when it’s at waxing crescent or waning crescent, what we know as new moon. Search for an ideal spot to include some trees or landscape in your picture BEFORE your actual night of shooting. This would help with any impromptu decisions to go stargazing whenever the skies are clear. Be aware of your surroundings though. You may not be able to see what’s around you but it doesn’t mean that you are not being watched. Nocturnal animals are out & about too. I found a Terrapin crossing the road & stopped to take a photo of it!

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Let me know if you have succeeded in taking any photos of the Milky Way!

Perdik & Beyond

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The unfurling of a fern.

At the start of the New Year, life just went on turbo mode. I accepted assignments that sent me to places, spent 5 days in Singapore, then spent another 6 days travelling to India & back. I’ve amassed a load of pictures which I’m tirelessly going through & selecting them for the stories. Returning from several birding trips & planning some more reminded me of words of wisdom from Chien who had persistently gone back to get the birds when no one did. I miss his take on so many aspects of my life & I’ve assimilated all of his advice on how a birder should be. Babes, how I wish you were here to see your legacy continue in the friends you have inspired such as the vivacious Georgina Chin, who has published a coffee table book with your excerpts, no, epilogue on birding. Even Nelson Khor, your best sidekick, the man of few words whose photographs of birds show more than what we will ever see, had started Malaysia’s very own bird forum to teach & nurture many Chinese-speaking birders to take pictures the way you did. To think that once, you defended him when the slew of nature police went after him for a crime against nature which he was innocent of. Today, he is standing upright & showing the rest how to be a leader the way you led. And me? Oh, I’m just going to places that you have told me to go, to see the birds that we have been after & to experience other cultures just as you did. I know you wanted me to be enriched just like you & would get upset if I didn’t listen. I am your legacy too. Today, I write more about nature & birds than I ever have in my life. And it’s all thanks to you.

My friends took me to Perdik. New birders who have the same passion for documenting birds. I brought my famous relax camo chair along, a gift from Philip Tang, and a camo collapsible umbrella I got from Colleen Goh which I never leave without. Just as well, the skies opened up & poured. Not wanting to waste the opportunity, I stood in my poncho, holding my umbrella & shielding my camera gear while I shot some of the flora & fauna in the jungle. Having acquired the Kiwifotos 4/3rds adapter for my Samsung NX200, I was able to mount my Sigma 50-500mm lens on it. The pictures came out pretty good.

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Ferns in the jungle look more appealing to me.

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The fire ants on the banana flower as it drizzles.

Birds were hard to shoot. With a full manual mode system, I was positioned right in the centre of fruiting trees & saw Barbets, Shrikes, Malkohas but they didn’t stay long enough for me to get a sharp shot. I managed to take videos but I need to find time to upload them. Walking along the fringe of the jungle, I came to a small farm & found a fluttering Rajah Brooke waiting to settle for some salt licks. The makcik by the name of Asiah, came out to check on what I was doing as I looked at her farm with fascination. She had free range chickens!!! And a few strange looking birds which I hadn’t seen before. There were ducks but they ran away when they saw me coming in with my tripod. I asked her why that strange looking fowl was called ”˜Ayam Keluk-Keluk.’ She said, “sebab bunyi dia macam keluk keluk keluk!” (it made the sound of keluk keluk keluk!) The cows had free range of the place too & the owner of the farm had to stop a territorial bull from coming at me. Yikes. The natural hazards of nature photography.

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The gobbledegook bird called Ayam Keluk-Keluk.

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The resting rooster, awaken by the pecking hen!

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Came across a very friendly Rajah Brooke!

We really got rained out & decided to quit for lunch at 2:30pm but not before I spotted a Drongo! People think black birds are drabby but this is such a beauty! You don’t need to have expensive gear to take priceless photos. You need to be at the right place at the right time, hopefully with the right settings on your camera for the right moment. All these photos on this post was taken on manual focusing with infinity focus. Here’s wishing for more opportunities like this!

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Drongo.

What To Find While Birding in Kuala Selangor

This month, Tourism Selangor takes us to celebrate the return of migratory birds & explore the resident species that make homes in the entire state. Migratory birds use the mangroves and coastal areas around Kuala Selangor as a transit area to feed and rest before continuing on their journey down south, much like a rest & relax area for birds! Kuala Selangor Nature Park has been designated as an Important Birding Area (IBA) – in compliance with internationally set criteria by BirdLife International. What can you find in this huge park? Let me take you to the permanent inhabitants……

Before you go, here are the list of things that you must carry on you when you set out on the long walk. You are not adviced to go if you don’t have these things on you.

  • Insect repellent <– compulsory. Midges will get you otherwise. These are nastier than mosquitoes & they come in swarms. Preferably, wear long sleeves or you will be considered as one with the colony of monkeys nearby.
  • Hat. The sun has no mercy. Stay cool & stay in the shade. Machismo can’t take you far in this park. Use a brolly if you have to. There are camouflage collapsible ones sold in tactical shops to prevent you from sticking out like a sore thumb as you wait for the birds.
  • Polarised sunglasses. <– you will need this to prevent you from squinting the whole day. Go to Peak Vision Optics & get yourself a pair of Cocoons.
  • Drinking water. <— compulsory. When you find a bird stalking a prey, you wouldn’t want to run back to the park office to get something to quench your thirst.
  • Batteries for all gadgets. Your phone, your camera, GPS, torch, whatever you need to power up everything for you to document the journey (of birds).
  • Portable/handheld fan. You will thank me for this.
  • Camouflaged attire or any green, brown or khaki coloured clothing will help you blend into the surroundings & get nearer to the birds.
  • Folding chair to rest at will. 🙂

Leave word with your friends & the park ranger of your expected time of return. They will send for a search party if you are caught ogling at birds longer than you should. We set off early in the morning to get there after breakfast. The loop around the wetlands is several kilometres long but you will see plenty if you keep your eyes peeled. The only migrants who arrived sooner than expected were the Blue Tailed Bee Eaters.

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Blue Tailed Bee Eaters. I think they were having a bit of a domestic quarrel here!

Walking along the fringe of the mangrove, we spotted a huge bird lying on the ground. When we got closer, it flew to the nearby trees, settling just above our eye level. It was a huge Crested Serpent Eagle! We had a good 20 minutes shooting it at all lighting conditions & angles never thought possible. A Black Naped Oriole was consistently attacking it to chase it away from its nest, assumed to be nearby. The eagle didn’t budge until it spotted a bigger morsel further into the jungle.

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Soaring above us was a White Bellied Sea Eagle, taken here just after a successful hunt. The fish it caught in its talons was a sizeable one! We weren’t really looking up into the sky if we weren’t having a break & thankfully, I had the camera ready. They will usually give out a shrill but most come unannounced when they hunt.

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Us taking a break in the shade while waiting for the kingfisher.

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Flying Lizard (Cicak Kubing)

Birds are not the only kind of wildlife we see in the park. There are Flying Lizards too! When we went up to a watchtower, we got to capture a few woodpeckers looking for worms in the woods.

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Spending a good 5 hours at the park & returning with all these beauties in our memory cards was all we came after. On the way back, we were treated to another session of birding when we saw a tree filled with nests that turned out to be Baya Weavers’ nests. Treading carefully & slowly, I was able to film one doing the deed! See video here:-

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They are normally built on the same tree.

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Closer look at the nest.

Coming away with a few residents & one migrant specie in my list is a great boon to come back again & again. More birds will be arriving in these shores as December approaches so it’s the best time to be watching them at Kuala Selangor Nature Park! Don’t forget that list of things to bring!

To get there, you can take the bus or taxi but it’s more advisable to drive.

(Taken from Wikipedia)
Visitors can board Selangor Bus No. 141 from Medan Pasar Bus Hub in Kuala Lumpur. The bus departs half-hourly from KL between 6.30am and 7.30pm, and takes 2 hours (++) to reach the bus terminal at Bandar Malawati, Kuala Selangor. (The last bus for the return trip from Kuala Selangor to KL is at 7.45pm) The one-way fare is RM7.30. The bus hub is about 100m north of Central Market. From Masjid Jamek LRT, walk 100m southeast along Jln Tun Perak before turning right into Lebuh Ampang. After walking another 100m, you will see the bus shelter next to a grey “clock tower” in the small square.

Directions from Bandar Malawati Bus Terminal: The terminal is in Bandar Malawati, which is about 1km southeast of the town centre. You can then take a RM5 taxi ride / local bus to the town centre of Kuala Selangor (alternatively you can take a 15-20min walk). [The bus terminal is also served by Cityliner buses from Klang]

It’s a one hour journey by cab. The cab might also not be able to pick up a passenger on the way back, so expect fares to be high. For comparison, the distance from KL to KLIA is about 80km and a one hour journey. Taxis typically want RM 70 for a trip to the airport. So you would expect something similar, or higher for this trip. You might be able to negotiate a good deal if you book the taxi for a return trip.
Hourly hire rates for a small taxi (red/white) is about RM35 an hour if you would like to book one for the duration of the trip.

If you drive, set your GPS to Kuala Selangor Nature Park & navigate your way there! I use Waze, available on iPhone & Android.

Why Do I Blog & Do You Blog Too?

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I don’t write about mundane things. I don’t think you would want to read about what I do when I wake up as much as what I wake up in & with whom. Wouldn’t that stir your curiosity? ;) 

I spend much of my time outdoors because I can’t see myself getting fat & lazy as writers tend to sit too long to conjure up stories about their subjects when they have no experience to write about. I know of journalists whom instead of following the scene to get news, they would get actors to fake a scene  to make news, but that’s about as far reaching up (or down) the corporate ladder as their standards go. Just don’t believe everything that you read until you verify the facts for yourself. 

Just about anybody who writes a blog is considered a blogger nowadays but what do you actually blog about that details you as a person & most of all, an individual? Why do you read other people’s blogs? What do you hope to get out of reading someone’s blog or by following them? How do you position yourself as an individual? When I started blogging in late 2004, it was a way of expressing what I couldn’t in my work or professional assignments, things that God had led me to do & the encounters with different kinds of people in my life. I detailed my early pageantry participation in a post that made lighthearted sense into a piece that anyone can identify with. When you have skills & use them, looks become secondary to intelligence because over time, beauty fades but your wit will grow with you. Am I afraid of growing old? Well, I’m only afraid of what growing old might prevent me from doing, all my outdoor pursuits in the same vigour that produces my work for you. 

Encounters with caustic people have taught me to know the great disparity between class & crass. I hardly contend with psychopaths for the violent social behaviour that they demonstrate causes me to feel great pity upon them for the life that they can’t have. There are those who are deprived of attention when they lash out on others & that’s entirely their prerogative if they want to be known that way. They are of no consequence to the life I lead & the people who are around me. And I continue producing pieces to engage as much as you want to be engaged. 

If you blog, please remember that your blog is entirely an expression of who you are, what you do & what you deem to represent so when you spew scum or what I would call a solemn utterance with the intention to invoke supernatural powers to inflict harm on anyone, you are indeed, asking for it to be reflected back to you. I firmly believe in Genesis 12:3 as it results from what is said in Proverbs 26:1-3. If you happen to be a person of credence & what you blog about interests the world, people would flock to read about what you have to say but if all you produce is negativity, you will attract all that you deserve, whatever that may be. 

When I’m not writing for my clients, I tweet about life & challenges. I engage people & disengage small minds. I activate what is known as a connection with people, to inspire & rouse them to think on a different level. And I spend a great deal of time looking for God’s marvellous creation in the natural because I love nature & wildlife. I take pictures & videos of them. And I teach my friends to do the same. The simpler you are, the less complicated things will be & the longer you will live. I will not sweat the small stuff. I’m amazed by some of the lies people spin to bring others down. They have such energy to concoct them & coat them with malice to a point that their testimonies become INCREDIBLE. Sometimes it’s so funny to see how the plot is lost in the over-zealousness of such individuals claiming their territory like how animals mark their space with pee. 

Strangely, these are what draws you, as a reader, to my blog each time something happens. If you have come here to catch the latest, I’m promoting a crime prevention programme with NST-Cars Bikes Trucks, AAM & the Royal Malaysian Police in conjunction with Car of The Year (COTY) 2012 happening in November. It’s a free course for women & spaces are limited to 300 only. You can sign up here or visit Venus on Wheels in Facebook. More about it on Monday.

Cherish Whats Left of Our Cities

Some of the issues I have had to deal with in my line of work are not your day to day operational issues where you can summon help from your peers, colleagues or subordinates. I get calls for help. Calls of distress. Calls of emergency nature that sometimes, I think I need to be equipped with not just a boat, a tent & a rations bag but a comprehensive first aid kit that includes a plaster big enough to cover hurts & an automated defibrillator to stun guilty parties out of their stupidity. And I’m licensed to use one. I train people to use them too. (Don’t try it on stupidity, it might backfire on you.) With so much happening, cycling & photography have become my best pastime.

Emergencies aside, I did find the time to board the KTM train to Klang for the Tourism Selangor Day Out on the 26 May 2012 for the Selangor Heritage Photo Trail & exhibition beneath the Klang City Bridge. Meeting Dian, Nigel, Hannah & David again was good as we explored a bit of the town to bring you the old charms of the place. David broke his leg when he jumped onto the boat fully kitted up & out of disbelief, I laughed out loud. I couldn’t believe it. Get well soon, David! LOL! Sorry, I always look at the brighter side of things, not laughing at your misfortune but at how it could happen to you! 😀

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We went into an old antique shop where I found an old pair of rollerskates amongst the knick-knacks that you won’t find anymore. There was an old ID card dated back in1894!

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Old radios, photos of yesteryears & even a magazine with the dashing young P.Ramlee were for sale. (Pictures above were taken with the Samsung Galaxy S3.)

Taking a walk around the shops was interesting because we came by many florists that had many kinds of fake flowers for decoration.

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The competition was launched by YB Elizabeth Wong, who was as usual, super punctual for the function.

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The event drew many studios, photography buffs & models who were dramatically made up to don on the Mardi Gras costumes.

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I never thought water meters were this artistic. I want the pink one…..where can I find it?

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Seeing veteran citizens using the bridge with their classic bicycles brought back nostalgic past of this town. We hardly see any old folks using the bikes in Kuala Lumpur any more. I had to ask if it was ok for me to take a snapshot of him!

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And I’m glad I got to be a part of this historical event under this bridge on that day, and was told that one of my photographs won the #TSDayOut Shot of The Day Competition! Thank you, Tourism Selangor!

All pictures here were taken using the Samsung NX200 unless stated otherwise.

The Oriental Diving Bird of Borneo

The Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) is a magnificent bird that hunts for fish underwater! Listed as a threatened specie, this bird is also known as the Snake Bird, contributed by the way it moves its head on its elongated neck. When it dives down into the water, it can stay submerged as it hunts for fish & reemerges to toss the fish in the air before it swallows it. The most impressive sight would have to be when it takes off from being in the water. Only its head breaks the surface as it swims to gain momentum for the lift. At Kinabatangan River, this specie can be spotted on treetops when not in the water.

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While cruising on North Borneo Safari’s quiet, electric engined boat, Alex Tiongco, Marts (speakers from Phillippines) & Hamit Suban, our brilliant nature guide, pointed out a flock of them on a skeleton tree. Unable to contain ourselves, we were rocking the boat with excitement. Each time either one of us did that, none of us could get a focus on the bird with our cameras & binoculars but it didn’t matter! Shaking from excitement is part of the fun. Thankfully for my Manfrotto 055CXPro4 tripod, much of our shakes were minimised & I could still take pictures on the flat bottom boat.

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Count the Darters!

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A Darter emerging from underwater! Used with permission from Cede Prudente.

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Grooming.

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These were taken from at least 100m away.

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A fishing Darter! Used with permission from Cede Prudente.

That was our first sighting on our first cruise. Eight of them in one frame! Sighting of a lifer is something that birders get extremely excited over especially when the specie doesn’t exist in my part of the world (Peninsular Malaysia), what more seeing eight of them. Their sheer size was also noteworthy & Cede Prudente had the opportunity of capturing this diving bird fishing as well as emerging from the water & it is truly an aspirational picture for me to document it one day……if I get to stay long enough in the river stalking this Darter.

The Challenge of Bird Photography In The Rainforest of Borneo

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Panorama shot of the trails within the Sepilok Forest Reserve.

Pictures do not tell a thousand words when the eye of the beholder does not know the behaviour nor the habitat of the bird the picture was taken in. The level of effort corresponds with the level of commitment to obtain the shot given the probability of  most conditions that are not favourable to photographers. With a very small window of opportunity in the thick foliage of Sepilok jungle, you have a few seconds to respond to adjusting your lens to frame the bird & get it into focus before firing the shutter.

Most times, you need to be up early & light is usually not favourable to you. Making the best of these situations, you either use fill-in flash on 2nd curtain sync or bump up the ISO to the max, depending on how capable your camera is. Pictures shown here are the exact lighting conditions without any adjustments.

Venue:- Rainforest Discovery Centre, Sepilok Forest Reserve, Sandakan, Sabah.
Heat & Humidity – This place must be the most awesome creation of tropical foliage in the rainforest of Sandakan but having so much thick cover, the humidity can reach well above 90% on an average day. It’s almost like the foliage on the canopy had trapped a massive amount of moisture for the life below that lingering inside is like a mist-cooker, you would be melting without even moving an inch. Lugging your gear with you & walking in the trails can cause you to be drenched wet with perspiration within your first half hour into your excursion. Solution: Get a Cobber, an expandable water-activated gel tube scarf to tie around your neck, cooling your carotid nerves as the day gets hot & hotter. Wear quick-dry & light attire to wick off moisture & sweat.

Hilly Terrain  – Be prepared to trek uphill as well as downhill. Carrying your mounted tripod if you have a 400mm lens or above would test your stamina & endurance but that’s just the beginning. Your essentials are almost always needed on an expedition like this so add it on to what you will be carrying on your photo backpack. Apart from carrying the right bag, an airtight/moisture-tight container is recommended for your batteries, memory cards & any peripherals which you think might be subjected to the humid air. A mini trolley would be an ideal partner for your bag & tripod as walking to the hotspots (spots with rare bird sightings) from one location to another can really drain you. Bring a 1.5litre bottle of water to rehydrate. You would not want to move from your spot for water only to discover from your birding buddies later that the bird landed, courted, fed & possibly mated when you were gone.

Wet Ground – Bring a foldable chair. Camouflaged preferred. I had to resort to sitting on the ground with my Manfrotto carbon fibre tripod shortened to fit into the little window. Alternatively, bring a small piece of spongy, exercise mat to sit on. Wear shoes with traction. I had my Timberlands Chocorua Trail on & it has served me well for the last 6 years.

Here are the shots, unedited, a few of them just cropped to give you clarity.

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In this picture, there is a hole in the tree. What we didn’t know was that this hole, is a secret bathtub for the birds!!! Note the twigs & branches obstructing the view.
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Close up shot of the bird bath…..
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And I managed to capture a Leaf Bird! I took videos of this bird & will upload them when I have better internet connection!

Updated! Video of secret bird bath!
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See the full frame picture……
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….and this section here where I pointed my lens!
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Here the bird sits quietly as it hunts for food. And a twig was in my way! Grrrr…..!
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Sometimes, you get lucky. There were two Kingfishers in this shot! Unfortunately, they were too far in even for my 500mm lens’ reach.
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To get a shot of the Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher (8cm in size only & this male was in a feeding courtship!), there was only one window around the leaves.

 

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This is the ‘window.’ The blurred parts of the picture are leaves obstructing my view.
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See the leaves again?
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Courtship in action! I gotta find a male who would feed me too! LOL!
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I think marriage is on the way…….yay! (Chan Pak, the HK veteran birder, eventually got the mating shot of these OD KF!)

 

The jungle is filled with sounds of bugs & birds. We were so engrossed with the little Dwarfs that we missed the big red Trogon behind us. The Diard’s Trogon has a red chest but always remain hidden with its back facing us so any opportunity to take a frontal shot is a shot in the dark…..

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See what I mean??? Obscured, I managed to get an ID shot of its chest.

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Still obscured despite me shifting position & angle.

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Getting a little frontal shot is still not considered good enough for any birdmasters, who will never show shots like these.

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Finally after a strained neck, a twisted back & wobbly legs from contorting myself to get the shots, I got the Diard’s Trogon!

My foray into bird photography in 2006, was attributed by my best friend, Chien, (who passed away on the 24 August 2011) when he talked to me about how he got those waders by staking out in the water to wait for the right moment. His pictures are astounding. His passion was even more infectious. He was born to teach & by sharing what he knows, he had enlarged his circle of influence to emulate what he did. And everyone enjoyed doing what he taught us to do, birding & learning about the habitat of birds to get the right time & capture the right shots. He had been a great friend & I am a product of emulating what he did with bird photography. I will share with you my discovery along the way just as Chien was so enthusiastic about sharing his discoveries when he was alive. Whatever challenges in bird photography that comes my way, his teachings would always echo in my head.

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Nature’s umbrella In the jungle – even the yam leaves are taller than I am!

The people behind the Borneo Bird Festival were fantastic & the resort I stayed in (Sepilok Jungle Resort) gave me a lot of opportunities to shoot birds in their compound. Being appointed as one of the judges in the Bird Photography Contest of the Festival, I want to thank the organisers for that honour & opportunity although it blew my cover as The Wannabe, I still think I do better stalking & reporting in my profession! Make Sepilok Forest Reserve as your next birding destination & be thrilled!

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A Sunbird in natural lighting.

Never Miss A Shot with Pentax – My Selangor Story 2011

I was eager to swim & soak away the aches so I took the opportunity to take the Pentax Optio WS80 with me. The thing that intrigues me is the amphibious nature of this model that I got supplied with during the contest duration to shoot with. I took it down to 1.5metres in the pool & it worked perfect. I could think of the many times that I have needed a small, waterproof, rugged camera with me & I will detail them here.
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Why You Would Need A Waterproof Camera:-

If you were an underwater photographer/videographer (like me), you need a backup camera. With the usual clunk that I carry, my underwater housing, strobes, lights, arms, tray, batteries/chargers weigh a ton. I simply cannot afford to carry another nor would I be able to purchase another set. When I shoot till the batteries dead, there is almost always a whale shark, a manta ray, an eagle ray or a happy squid BECKONING ME to shoot it. Somehow, Murphy’s Law would only apply then, ‘Anything That Can Go Wrong, Will Go Wrong.’ It is absolutely wrong NOT to be able to document any NatGeo moment that I encounter. The Pentax Optio WS80 or Pentax Optio WG1 would sit perfectly inside my BC pocket.

  • When you have a pool party, you almost always get thrown into the pool. Everything else can be replaced but definitely not the pixels recorded in your memory card if you don’t have a waterproof camera.
  • When you go jungle trekking & have to cross rivers with rocky terrain, the last thing you need is to drop your camera while balancing on these ultra slippery rocks. And you are like me, you want to take the breathtaking shots as you trek……
  • You teach swimming & scuba diving like me & want something to record your student’s progress. They can’t see how they perform themselves if you don’t have a waterproof camera that can shoot videos of them with. It is great for perfecting their strokes (swimming) and correcting their finning method (diving). Maybe you can get your friend to record your performance too.
  • You love tide pools after the tide go out & want to document life in these tiny pools that hold a myriad of life. It’s impossible to submerge a bulky, housed camera & a small, handhold, amphibious camera would be great for this task. Another NatGeo opportunity that you wouldn’t want to miss.
  • You’re one of those who like taking pictures of yourself in the bath……no, I’m not that type so WIPE THAT IMAGE OF ME DOING THAT IN YOUR HEAD.
  • You just want to don on your rain jacket & play in the rain & what better way to shoot in these circumstances than to have a waterproof camera with you at all times???
  • Still not convinced? Well, I spent a hour in the pool at Holiday Inn Kuala Lumpur Glenmarie Resort to convince myself why I SHOULD BE GETTING A WATERPROOF CAMERA next & it wasn’t very hard to convince myself after looking at the videos. These videos are super clear & have already been resized.

The beautiful landscaped garden at the hotel, has a man-made waterfall cascading into a concrete pool. The garden is bordered by a walled fence beside the golf course thus, a serene & tranquil environment for guests.

The kids playing merrily in the pool made great subjects to film underwater. Here are the videos taken with it:-

The camera is perfect for travellers who want a fuss-free, waterproof model to take snapshots in situations where they wouldn’t want normal cameras to function in, such as at beaches, waterfalls, lakes, swimming pools. It serves as a good back up camera with HD movie capability in the event that your primary camera refuse to work for whatever reason.

As soon as I got out of the pool to relax on on of the deck chairs, the pool attendant walked over with a beach towel & handed it to me. I am impressed with the level of service rendered even at the recreational level where guest are expected to take it easy. Holiday Inn Kuala Lumpur Glenmarie Resort has definitely got it right with impeccable service!

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Picture taken with the Pentax WS80

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Picture taken with the Pentax WS80

 

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Picture taken with the Pentax WS80

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Picture taken with the Pentax WS80

 

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Day 3 – Seafood & Gluttons in The Mountains at Awana Genting Highlands, My Selangor Story 2011

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Dinner was lavish. Seafood was brought in & the spread was more than what we could stomach for a week. The restaurant is called Pasar Ikan Bakar, translated to mean Grilled Fish Market. Decorated with low tables & Thai triangular-backed cushioned mattresses on colourful hand-woven straw mats, it was one big, cosy dining area. When we were told of a night walk, we thought we’d better stuff ourselves. It was difficult to hold back given the choicest foods in the spread! We became gluttons at sight of the seafood!

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Calamari/squid, fresh prawns & flower crabs on a bed of shaved ice!!!

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Cosy settings at Pasar Ikan Bakar

We even had the in-house band entertain us with songs throughout dinner which I thought was utterly fabulous! The singer had a wonderful voice & it filled the place with an ambience that’s indescribably good! Maybe my protruding tummy at the end of the meal & the triangular backs of these mattresses caused me to be at ease at all times. It felt so good to have someone serenading you over your meal, just like in a hotel except that I was in the middle of the jungle in Genting Highlands. Bliss! With bloggers like Andi Kus & Shaleh, I couldn’t stop laughing the whole night. Goofing around was never this fun until I met them! I don’t think there is another jungle lodge that’s as elaborately comfy & vibrant as this place!

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Andi Kus & Shaleh with muka-muka masing-masing!

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Posting the yummy seafood for you to see again!

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Salad bar!

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We even have pickled nutmeg & such!

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A fruit rojak bar!

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A sambal counter!!!

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The in-house band entertaining us!

This wasn’t all, Amelia Tan, the organiser gave a rendition of the same song in the most soulful manner, enough to melt any man’s heart. The video is on my Day 5’s posting.

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I had two helpings of this portion!

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We were served supper too!

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Spoilt silly for choices.

This is definitely the place for companies to bring their employees for team building. Where else can you get such great food to bring out the devotion in your staff? After being fed supper, we all turned in. In the stillness of the night, the symphony of frogs croaking sent me rolling onto my mattress & planning yet another escape route for the obstacle course the next day…….

Pasar Ikan Bakar is at Awana Genting Highlands Golf & Country Resort and is open every Friday, Saturday & Sunday. For bookings, call +60361013015 Ext: 53020 or 7605 between 9am – 5pm.

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The next day, the gruelling challenge begins…..