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Why and How I Took Up Birding Photography

Article by Clement Lee which has been published in ‘Bird Diaries’ column in Asia Times Pulse

Brown throated sunbird/Clement Lee

My profession is actually scuba diving. I have been diving for the last 40 years now since 1982 ( and I’m still actively diving). I was one of the first two Malaysian PADI Course Directors (1991  USA) and certified as PADI Scuba Instructor in 1985 in Australia. I was one of the four pioneers in introducing Professional PADI certification in Sabah and also pioneer in the now world renown island, Sipadan.

I retired happily in 2012 and have been enjoying my hobbies in scuba diving and golfing. But now, I have a third hobby – birding photography!

I have long been fascinated with birds and wildlife all these years, and most importantly, nature.

I have been a keen underwater photographer since I took up scuba diving.

But I started photographing birds in late 2019. It was during an expedition trip to Kinabatagan with three fellow PHD holders, Dr Rahimatsah, Dr John Tay and Dr Waidi Sinun.

While cruising in a long boat with them and with some foreign pro wild life photographers, we tried to capture wildlife and birds. But I only had a 300mm lens versus their long zoom lens and because of my poor eye sight I could not quickly locate properly where the wild life and birds were. My 300mm lens of course was not good enough to capture anything on top of tall trees and at a distance.

Because of this, I missed a lot of birds and course those beautiful wildlife along the Kinabatangan River.

Raffle’s Malkoha/Clement Lee

Noticing my limitation, the three doctors kindly advised and encouraged me to get a longer lens if I wish to do bird and wildlife photography.

After coming back from the Kinabatangan trip, I went to order a Tamron 150-600mm lens but the lens unfortunately came only in late February 2020.  And just as I was about to embark on birding photography adventure, the first Movement Control Order (MCO) was announced with total lock down. So, I was “grounded” in my own house, unable to move anywhere outside.

Rather than waiting for MCO to be lifted I decided to take photos in from the front and back of my house balcony.  This has been the place I use to practice my bird photography skills with lots of consultations from my experienced bird photography friends. I have also learned a lot from them with regard to identifying all the many different kinds of birds.  

Quite fortunately, my house back yard is a jungle with trees on hill slope. But the downside is that only very common birds come by like Yellow-vented Bulbul, Olive-back Sunbird, etc…though occasionally eagles fly by too!

The lock down continued for a long while but then this gave me the opportunity to kind of fine tune my photography skills, through a lot of trial and error and a lot of coaching from my friends!

I must say that I’m still a beginner as I have only less than two years in bird photography experience. I consider myself pretty much an amateur.

Birding outing trips:

When lock down was partially lifted, I set out to join my friends to photograph at various locations. I am introducing them as below:

  1. Locations within driving distance in Kota Kinabalu:
  1. KK areas (Tg. Aru Prince Phillip Park,  Dalit area, Kokol Hill, Likas Lagoon, Bukit Padang, Gunung Alap , Sayap Substation and Inobong Sub- Station):

Here are the must-go places for beginners who may find species of birds as follows: Red Avadavat, Black-winged Kite, Java Sparrow etc.

Also Blue-napped and the Long tailed parakeet parrots, Oriental Darter, Purple Heron, Hooded Pitta, Black-crowned night Heron, Bornean black-capped Babbler, Rare species of Partridge, Indigo Flycatcher, Bornean Green Magpie, Chestnut-hooded laughing thrush, Little Cucko dove,

Raffle’s Malkoha Blue-napped Barbet and Crested Serpent eagle.

  • Kota Belud: Spoon-bills, whistling ducks and Eastern marsh Harrier.
  • Kinabalu Parks: Whiteheads Trogon, Whiteheads Broadbill, Whitehead Spiderhunter etc
  • Maliau Basin: This is one of my favorite destinations. Driving from KK will take about 6 hours and the bird species are astonishing as you can find different species of Hornbills such as Helmeted Hornbill, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill etc
  • Trusmadi: This is another one of my favorite locations as you can find endangered species of Bulwer pheasant, and many other rare species of birds.
  • Sukau Kinabatangan: Another must-go area if you like wildlife and bird photography.
  • Tabin Wildlife: This area has over 300 species of birds ( half of Sabah’s birds species can be sighted here).
  • Sandakan RDC
Clement Lee

Why  I am  interested in birds vs underwater photography?

There are a lot of similarities between underwater creatures and birds. For example their behavior and colors and sexes, As a general rule of thumb, male birds are normally more colorful and this is the same with marine fishes.

But I have found the behavior of birds very interesting. For example, I notice most birds will tend to do self-preening in early morning and they usually fly and perch at same place every morning. This is when i can focus on photographing them. A classical example is the Zebra Dove or Olive-backed Sunbird.

Again taking bird photographs need immense focus and patience, essentially important just like taking pictures underwater. Because birds are well camouflaged (just like marine creatures e.g. Nudibranch or Pygmy seahorse) and you have to concentrate and focus only on certain areas such as trees etc. 

As a matter of fact, underwater photography has taught me the specific skills needed to find and photograph birds. When photographing macro or minute critters underwater, because of their sizes and their camouflage, I usually focus only a small area and hover on top like 1-2 feet away and watch closely, then I will shoot anything that moves. It is the same with birds, although the area I cover is larger for a tree, so we have to be particularly alert and fast and focus.

Any particular birds I like most and why

No doubt eagles are my favorite bird because their looks are so ‘arrogant’, ‘fierce’ and ‘threatening’. Eagles are huge but they fly so gracefully in the air. The moment when they zoom down to scoop up a fish in river, lagoon or sea, this is the most difficult to capture. But if you do get the result of the photos, it comes as a big reward.

Birds in Sabah:

Reportedly there are over 600 species of birds here, and I have recorded EVERY bird i have so far come across and photographed and I have done close to 150 in the last 20 months and would therefore love to go for more.

Crested serpent eagle/Clement Lee

My 3 LOVES in Hobbies:

Diving, Golfing and Bird Photography.

All 3 have ONE thing in common- equipment-intensive!

Unfortunately, weather also decides fate of all of these hobbies.

During MCO, I could not go diving nor golfing. But at least I could still take bird photos in the compound of my house.

A family of Red-Breasted Patridge/Clement Lee


Bird photography offers me a chance to get close to nature and that is what I like. Just like diving and also golfing, I believe these are three sports/hobbies you can still do even when you get older. 

With God’s grace, I would like to do this at least till I am in the 80s and more…..and I would love to see my grandchildren doing these too.

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