A Cold-blooded Encounter at Bukit Timah

Hiking up Bukit Timah Hill in Singapore with a long lens setup is never a truly enjoyable experience for me. The weight of the system, the steep climb and the general lack of any bird life on the way to the top meant that I am often staring at the road ahead instead of looking at the trees. The reward is often at the summit itself where birds tend to congregate.

So it was on one fine afternoon in late January 2012, that I found myself once again attempting to climb the summit. The climb was uneventful as things go and I was almost reaching the top. As is my normal routine, I tend to quicken my pace near the end just to get it over and done with.

Out of the blue, on the last big curve towards the top, a frog jumped out from the bushes by the side of the road. It hopped towards my direction and as my eyes was trying to keep track, something even bigger rushed forward towards me as well. I was so stunned by what was happening that I did not move any part of my body, except for my head that was tracking two things moving towards me, and then away from me. Had it been anything dangerous, I would have been toast. It took maybe 1-2 seconds before it registered in my mind that a frog was being chased by a snake. Almost instinctively, I raised my camera system that was slung on the side of my body towards my face, dialed the shutter speed knob of the camera a few notches clockwise and started tracking the two creatures. By the time I locked focus, they must have been 10 meters away. It was just a matter of clicking the shutter continuously while tracking their movement. Not an easy task considering that I was half exhausted from the climb, but the adrenaline rush helped somewhat.

So what exactly was happening? Well a Keeled Rat Snake (Ptyas carinata) was chasing a Malesian Frog (Limnonectes malesianus) and succeeded in capturing after a few attempts in holding the frog still. It then proceeded to swallow it whole.

Why are so many of the shots blur though? Now Bukit Timah Hill is rather shaded and before the climb, I had put on a 2XTC (teleconverter) on my 300mm lens and set the shutter speed to a low number (1/80s probably). When I saw the snake, my instinct was to increase the shutter speed so as to capture the action without any blur. But there was no time to actually look at the settings. I had to just turn the knob without knowing whether it was enough, and then concentrate on finding the subjects through the camera viewfinder. Evidently the shutter speed was still too low at 1/160s to stop action. But at the very least I am lucky to have 1 or 2 good enough shots. I am also fortunate that I was at the right place and at the right time. If I had been half a minute early or late, there would have been no action shots.

The shots below are pretty self-explanatory. What is interesting is that the Malesian Frog is one of the largest frog native to Singapore (>10cm in length) and is globally threatened. The Keeled Rat Snake is also a large snake as well, hence my inability to fit the whole snake in the picture despite the distance. They prey on rats (as the name suggest) as well as frogs, and are constrictors rather than being very venomous. I am not familiar with both these species as this is my only encounter with them.

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