For several years I dreamt about going to the world famous farm of Bence Máté in Kiskunsági National Park in Hungary.
I finally made it in June 2017 and went there for a whole week with the Swedish wildlife photographer Brutus Östling.
The farm of Bence Máté is situated just outside the town of Pusztaszer.
In this area, Bence has developed an incredible concept with about 18 different hides and the opportunity to photograph a huge variety of unique bird species like hoopoes, rollers, bee-eaters, herons, various passerines and songbirds.
A week of high expectations and immense photography laid ahead.
I decided to go by car to Hungary – a 1,500 km long drive each way – as flight connections from Copenhagen to Budapest are bad. Furthermore, it was nice to be able to pack all my photo gear without thinking about cabin luggage weight restrictions. However, it was a long journey and many days of travelling.
After two days drive through Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia, I reached the farm of Bence Máté in Hungary on Saturday 17th June at 2 o’clock in the afternoon.
All other participants had already arrived and Brutus greeted me welcome and announced that I had to start in the “Cinema” hide – immediately!
Fifteen minutes later I sat in a pleasant armchair ready to photograph through the special glass window. The construction enables you to photograph without disturbing the birds as they cannot see through the glass.
Also, you could mount two cameras on a special suspension allowing for the use of different focal length to cover the various activities going on outside.
Outside this fantastic hide made for three photographers the water was at eye level allowing for a low perspective when taking images of the Night Herons, Grey Herons, Great White Egrets and Squacco Herons catching fish just in front of you.
After seven hours it started getting too dark for photography. Then, two otters suddenly turned up for a few minutes and with a little help from some spotlights being operated from the inside of the hide, I managed to get a useful image. We left the hide and walked back to the farm to get a well-deserved meal at the terrace.
The sun rose at 4:45, so we had to get up early to take advantage of the soft morning light.
In the evening our guides Kokó and Csaba had planned the hide rotation between the eight participants for the next day. I had to start the morning at the Roller Tower with Ivo Niermann from Germany.
Ivo and I were a “team” and would spend about 50 hours together in the hides during the week. Fortunately, Ivo turned up to be a nice guy and good company.
Brutus joined us for the morning session and we left the farm at 5 o’clock. Some had to leave as early as 3:30 for the “Theatre”. Very soon you realise that sleep would be of short supply during the week!
The Roller Tower was not as comfortably as the Cinema. It was a wooden shed build high up in a tree and we sat on a hard bench. However, the view was perfect as a Roller family lived in a tree just in front of the hide.
Thus, the parents constantly flew in to feed their young’s allowing for some great photo opportunities.
By noon we were picked up by the guide Csaba in an old yellow Lada from 1979 and returned to the farm after many hours of concentrated Roller photography.
I became very obsessed by these colourful birds and the challenge to take flight images just before they enter the nest.
Therefore, I returned to the Roller Tower several times during the week. At one time I even managed to get an image of a Cuckoo for the first time when it landed on one of the branches in front of the Roller nest.
Back at the farm we had some lunch followed by image upload and backup routines. Not much time to relax as Ivo and I had to go to the “Theatre” at 4 o’clock.
The Theatre – a great show
After a short drive we arrived to a lake. Well hidden among the vegetation we found a nice little wooden house with a small kitchen. Even a bedroom and a bathroom was available. We were told, that Bence Máté had lived in the “hide” for a whole month during winter.
From inside the house a 12-metre long underground corridor led to a room with three nice armchairs and the same kind of devices for the cameras as in the Cinema hide.
In the hide you can choose whether to photograph backlit or front lit. Two huge glass panes are installed on each side of the room.
Following several accidents where photographers have smashed the expensive windows in their eagerness to change camera positions between the two, it has now been decided to only allow for one direction at a time – we used the front light.
The variety of birds in front of the hide was very much the same as with the Cinema although the area is much wider.
A few days later Ivo and I returned to the Theatre for a morning session and also had the opportunity to photograph some Black Storks and a Spoonbill.
Some of my favourite subjects before going to Hungary was the colourful Bee-eaters. For several years they have lived just outside the farm of Bence Máté. However, due to the arrival of ground squirrels they are no longer there.
Therefore, Bence has found a new spot some 30 minutes’ drive from the farm and I had the fortune to go there twice.
I took some classic shots of Bee-eaters with their preferred diet – bees of course!
I had hoped for some good mating images but the four incidents I witnessed were all facing away from me.
The most interesting image came unexpected. A sole Bee-eater sat on a branch cleaning its feathers. As there was no other activity going on I pointed my 500mm lens against the bird to pass the time.
Just as I had the Bee-eater in focus another bird came flying in high speed and made an attack. I hold down the trigger and with a camera taking 14 images per second, I managed to photograph the assault.
It was very dramatic and you can see the attacker’s beak around the head of the unsuspecting bird.
One of the other hides that we used was in front of a Hoopoe nest.
Unfortunately, the eggs had not yet hatched so the activity was sparse. Only once every hour the male Hoopoe came to feed the female so we had to be alert. Only a few chances were given to photograph this beautiful bird.
Also, we spend some time in a hide established as a drinking station in the wood. A lot of small birds came by to drink and get a bath.
A unique feature with this place was a mirror placed on a tree. By using a cord inside the hide you could manoeuvre the mirror and getting the reflection of the sun to create back light when at the same time having the normal light coming from the front. It made some extraordinary lighting effects on the water splashes.
Just before pick up by our guide Kokó a Goshawk came by. Incredible to have a bird of prey sitting a few metres in front of you for a long time.
It is beyond comparison the most amazing and productive photo workshop I have ever experienced.
My fellow participants were great and as always, I very much enjoyed the company of Brutus. He readily shares his huge knowledge and it is a privilege to see the passionate sparkle in his eyes when telling about his many adventures worldwide with his camera.
Furthermore, the concept created by Bence Máté is fantastic.
There is a huge diversity of bird species and the photo opportunities by using the many well-constructed hides are amazing.
The staff at the farm are knowledgeable and very friendly doing their utmost to make your stay a success.
Also, it was a nice surprise to meet Bence Máté. To me, he is today’s greatest bird photographer in the world.
Before travelling to Hungary, I was a bit sceptic about photographing through the glass windows in the hides. However, it worked well and no visible effects are shown on the image quality.
Just before leaving for a long journey home, I spend some time photographing the cute ground squirrels living in the garden of the farm. The only images from the trip without the use of a hide … ; – )
It was a fantastic week at the farm of Bence Máté and I will definitely return to this wildlife photographers dream – but next time I will take a flight!