At the age of 14, Bence Mate won the title ‘Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year’, but it was not just his photographic talent that impressed the judges, it was his passion for wildlife and conservation. Mark Carwardine, a BBC zoologist and one of the judges, presented Bence with his award. He recalls “Bence was and still is an outstanding naturalist, due to spending every available moment in the field photographing the behaviour of his beloved birds. Even as a teenager his stated ambition was to earn money from his photography so he could set up his own hides, to encourage more people to appreciate birds and wildlife.”
22 years later, Bence Mate has more than achieved his teenage ambition. He’s designed and built 24 very different hides around his farmhouse in Hungary. He pioneered the use of one-way glass to allow bird watchers and photographers to get close to the shyest of birds without disturbing them. Described by Mark (now a regular visitor) as “some of the most imaginative and inspiring bird hides I have ever seen”.
The hides include a 12 metre high Tower Hide which is home to numerous nest boxes and perches, which says Bence “encouraged numerous prospective tenants. A pair of kestrels chose a nest box right under the window of the hide. They actively defended their territory, even against Common Buzzards, three times their size.”
“The success of the first Tower Hide led to the building of a second one close to a site favoured by a Red-footed Falcon colony. We mounted four nest boxes on the hide and four more close by. Red-footed falcons are known to occupy nest boxes but we were very surprised when the first pair returned from Africa and immediately occupied one of the boxes.”
Key species which can be seen from the hides in winter include otters, white-tailed eagles, common buzzards, bitterns, great white egrets, grey herons, water rail, kingfishers, marsh harriers, spoonbills, great cormorants, caspian gulls and black-headed gulls. Later in the year they are joined by goshawks, sparrowhawks, little egrets, squacco herons, European bee-eaters hoopoe, European rollers (from early turtle doves, little owls, black woodpeckers and Mediterranean gulls.
The hides and plentiful supply of nest boxes have also attracted one of the most colourful birds in Europe – the Roller. A few decades ago it was rare to see breeding pairs in Hungary . The roller mainly nests in tree cavities but due to extensive logging such holes became scarce. However, a nationwide nest-box project supported by Bence proved very successful and now the population is thriving. Says Bence “rollers regularly occupy nest boxes around the hides, where their behaviour can be observed at very close quarters. I can state with confidence that their spectacular colour is only matched by their meanness! I’ve seen them fearlessly attack Turtle Doves, Lesser Grey Shrikes, Common Kestrels and even Buzzards, during the mating season.”