Article from National Geographic Russia, March, 2013

Speaking birds language

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In his 20's, Bence Mate has gained fame with his bird photographs. He usually makes them without leaving the house. To be correct – the hide. He has built dozens of them.

Story by Andrei Palamarchuk

It's ironical that his main award – 'Wildlife photographer of the year 2010' – Bence Mate received for a report from the life of ants. Meanwhile almost all his photographs (and his life as well) are dedicated to birds. Bence says that he never reads books – unless they are about birds. But never mind the books: it takes just one look from the window of his house to understand what this boy is made of. Some 50 meters away there are nestboxes and a stork's nest atop a pole. The pole itself is gouged here and there: the hollows are for rollers. Kestrel's nest is nearby. An artificial ravine can be seen: it is covered with burrows (artificial, too) where bee-eaters live. And above all this a 12 meters tall tower rises. On top of it there is a cabin – the photographer's hide – and there's also a nestbox for a little owl mounted on it. "The birds are everywhere and don't take any notice of you," says Bence with a smile. "And you don't need to go too far!" The most famous hungarian photographer met me in Budapest airport in the evening before. Two hours driving South-East down E75 highway – and we found ourselves in Pusztaszer village. Soon after dropping by a local bakery for some warm crunchy bread we take a country road to Bence's house. We count the hares in our headlights: there are seven for just a couple of minutes. "There can be up to twenty sometimes," Bence says. "It's surely the heart of the country. And the best place for the birds. There's a nice diversity of favorable natural zones: grassland, fields, forest, lakes. Throughout a year you can see up to 160 species from the garden (or up to 220 on the area)." For 7 years out of his 27 Bence Mate has lived alone in a neat 19th century house by a forest. This is a typical farmhouse but massively rebuilt by its current owner: "When I moved in, the place was almost a ruin." Bence guides me through the house: small hallway, kitchen, dining-room – the walls covered with pictures all very familiar from many contests and exhibitions. Two doors lead from the dining room – to Bence's bedroom (which is the study as well) and a guest room. From April to July the house is a crowded place. It can take up to five guests at a time. Photographers from all over the world come here to take pictures of birds from hides built by Mate. There are about twenty of them in the neighborhood. Bence has taken some of his best pictures from them and now they are a source of money to fund his next projects. "In high season it is noisy here. People sit around this table at dinner, with their cameras and notebooks, looking over each other's shoulders," says Bence while making evening tea. Apart from Hungary Bence Mate arranges photo safari to Costa-Rica and Brazil. South Africa will join this list soon: just five days before meeting me Bence came back from this country where he had been scouting.

Journalist nicknamed Bence Mate "invisible photographer". It is also the title of his book. Bence was just about 20 when a simple but effective idea came to him. He decided to try and take pictures of birds hiding behind reflecting glass – the kind often used in the restaurant windows. Normally hides for wildlife photography were equipped with curtains with a hole for lens. By exchanging unhandy curtains for the semi-transparent window the photographer gets indisputable advantages. The only problem is to find a place to hide. And for Bence it is not a problem at all. "I knew local birds before I started photography. I travelled all over the place with my bicycle when I was a kid. I had an old referense book. It was fun to find in this book the bird that I just saw in real life. But I needed more." At 11 Bence bought an old Soviet photogun Zenit with 300 mm lens. The boy painted it green and brown camouflage. He still keeps it as a memory. At the same age Bence started building his first hides to reduce distance between himself and the birds. "I had a very good teacher at school. He helped me a lot by telling me how to bait birds with the sound," he says. "I remember how long it took for me to take my first good pictures of rollers. Now it is not a problem: you sit inside a hide, wait a while and here they are – fighting, mating, looking for food."

Next morning we start a trip around the lands of the "invisible photographer". We are three – Bence's business partner Csaba aka Pelican joined us. Pelican is a photographer, IT programmer and a friend. We are driving along a channel towards the ponds. Suddenly Bence slows down and grabs a binocular. "Look, there's a white-tailed eagle over there. One of the biggest raptors in Europe. Just landed. If we move forward a little we'll see another one, he must be a little close to us, behind these reeds... A very shy bird. You see it rose up!" Bence passes me the binocular, which simply doesn't want to focus on the clearing between the reeds where there is plenty of birds (presumably). Enjoying vague spots in the binocular I keep nodding my head readily while Bence speaks: "It's been a warm September so still there's a lot of birds. You can see pygmy cormorants over there – it is still quite a rare species. And there's a grey heron if you look that way..." I'm giving back the binocular feeling guilty and determined to be eagle-eyed next time. We take a turn to a country lane and face a barrier at once. "This is the protected area border. You can do nothing without a permit here – and the permit is very difficult to get. But we persuaded the authorities that we wouldn't harm the environment," Bence explains while lanky Csaba opens the barrier lifting it up with his long arms. In a couple of minutes we approach the wall of reeds. There is a water system behind them – about square miles of ponds. "They were farm pond during the Communists. Now fishing is prohibited, the area is protected, the water level is stable – 30 to 40 centimetres, the shoreline is just perfect for nesting. The conditions are very close to natural – if not better." Bence tells me about his first shore hide – it was there where he did some of his best known pictures, including the night scenes of common spoonbills resting with lightnings on the background. This hide is very romantic and I will surely see it, but this is not what we are here for. Bence is going to show me something he has never shown to anyone before. We go walking some 200 meters and then, behind the reeds, we see a brand-new facade of something that looks like a typical fisherman's cabin. We enter the house. Inside there's a sofa, a fridge, big TV set, air conditioner and a stairway downward. "Mind you head!" Pelican warns me. I seem to have gotten into a mole hole. After some 10 meters on all fours I find myself in a long narrow room with two panoramic windows on both sides. Along the central line, one after another, there are three leather-clad armchairs. (Our editor-in-chief has a smaller one – I thought for a second). The rotating armchairs and mobile supports for cameras let the photographer quickly flip shooting directions. Behind the glass, on eye level – bone-dry sludge. "Funny how long ago I've been here!" Bence says. "A month ago it was plenty of water here.” He is filled with pride „Everything has been done within a year, even faster. The dam surrounding this mini-gulf, the system of five mini silent pumps that takes water from the outside pond and delivers it to different parts of the inner pond – all of this helps keeping the needed water lever with great precision. This is how we fight reflection of the sunlight from the water surface." Bence is a fan of contre-jour. It has been his dream to build a hide fully equipped for backlighting. Here he fights direct sunlight is blended here with moving roof driven with electric engine. The apron can advance a meter long. I notice stickers on the window glass – the silhouettes of raptors. "Sometimes birds attack their own reflection mistaking it for a rival. Thus they may hurt themselves. The silhouettes scare off smaller ones," Bence explains. "For bigger birds we use the same technique that farmers do with sheep-proof fences: a thin wire in front of the glass, with low-amperage current in it." After a contact with the wire a bird bounces back at about a meter and keeps on looking for food as if nothing happened. «There's a lot of job to do. For example we need to mount rear-view monitors to let the photographer see what's behind his or her back..." After a pause Bence continues merrily: "Anyway this place is sold out for the next season!"

Photo safari at Bence's hides attracts both amateurs and professionals coming for new stock. There are more and more amateurs – they amount to 60% of all Bence's clients. "Last season there've been photographers from 22 countries in Hungary alone," he says. "One week I had 5 guests here – all with different passports. It is always nice to have this kind of international team brought together. Photographers always find something to talk about. And I also can learn much from them, especially when someone comes from a country I've never been to – New Zealand, for example. And by the way there have never been any visitor from Russia. It is really strange, I don't know how to explain it."

The hide we sit in is the most sophisticated project Bence ever undertaken. He invested all his money in it. "If it was just business for me I wouldn't try so hard," he says. "But I mostly do it as a hobby and I want to carry out everything that I've devised." Bended down we make our way to the farthest end of the room. Here, behind a curtain, will be the main attraction of this hide – Nikon D800 camera with 200–400 mm lens which can be operated via Internet. "This is basically a hi-end web-camera – the first one in the world, I guess, with such functionality. The software is all ours, Pelican did it. You will be able to move the camera to every direction, adjust the aperture, zoom in and out – all of this through online interface. Photos and video will go from here to the server where you can download them. We will test the camera in 2013 on a secret web page. By the way if you are interested we can think about a contest with the readers of National Geographic Russia – and those who win will get a passcode to it!" By this time our dialogue transformed into Bence's monologue. "This was quite an old idea. It came to me 7 years ago, but the connection here was not good enough and I didn't have enough money. Now we have very fast Internet here and it's high time to start. But there's also a hell of work to do – and everything's new, nobody has experience." "Everything must be in real-time – any signal delay makes it all worthless," Csaba-Pelican adds. Just when I start thinking about going back to the surface Bence asks me to look down. It is only now that I see a tunnel under my knee-level. It is even more narrow than the first one. "After you," – Bence smiles. In a second I find myself crawling towards unknown, trying not to think about darkness and tightness. After five or six meters we are in a really tiny room – just big enough for two. It looks like a cube of glass making it possible to shoot under water level as well as above it. Behind the glass – and it seems strange for this dry season – is plenty of water. Bence explains that we are surrounded by another separate mini-pool supplied with filtered water by a special pump. "It wasn't in the project," he smiles. "We had some leftovers, pieces of metal and someone joked about another corridor. But we thought about it and decided that it may be a good idea. This part of the hide is very low – some 30 cm above water level – and it is located 25 meters away from the shore. So the birds feel very comfortable near it."

Back on the ground I look at the hide from the outside: the cabin can't seen from the pond and the hide itself resembles a very small pier. Mirrors create very convincing effect of emptiness under the roof. If I was a bird I wouldn’t suspect anything. Meanwhile Bence gives me a second chance to use binocular. "The biggest nesting of egrets and herons in Hungary are behind these reeds. Something between 500 and 1000 pairs – depends of the weather conditions each year." This is exactly the case when nobody knows what is there behind a curtain. We can wath the birds only when they go out fishing. "You see pygmy cormorants over there?" asks Bence, and this time I clearly see a group of birds in the middle of the pond – there's enough water there. "25 years ago this species was first observed in Hungary and now there are about 1100 couple of them nesting. And if you look that way you'll see great white egret. Very interesting bird. It migrates within its habitat – but when the winter is mild and there's enough of food it can be resident... Biodiversity is being reduced everywhere – but luckily not in this place," adds Bence. I have another question. Bence has built a unique system of observation points for birds. Has any scientist or school teacher, ecologist or biologist, ever asked the "invisible photographer" to let them use his hide for scientific purposes? "No. Not yet. But I think this is a good idea. While watching birds from the hides you get the information you cannot find otherwise. Each species and each individual is really special. Some species are still little known – all you can find in books about them is a couple of thousand characters."

After lunch all three of us watch home movies in Bence's house. A crane rising up the steel carcass of the "online hide" and putting it onto a levelled site amidst sludge – all accompanied by most emotional Hungarian swearing... The construction of a tower hide in Costa-Rica is underway – in the pouring rain, with "help" of Indian workers who can speak neither English nor Hungarian... Bence showing a bandage on his arm deeply cut with a chainsaw... Some experts think that it is unsporting to take pictures from the hides. You don't stalk the "prey", but wait for it to come up, sipping tea in comfort. Can it be called "wildlife" photography after all? There can be different opinions. Many of Bence's colleagues – including those who jury prestigious contests – don't see anything wrong with it as long as the birds are safe and the hides are built and used with no harm to the environment. There can be a whole article dedicated to this discussion, but it's difficult to argue that at just 11 a schoolboy from Hungarian village felt the direction where all modern photography developed. He started building hides to be able to shoot at the closest distance and from the same level with the objects. First came the hides, then – in a few years – the pictures that have never been taken by anyone before. "I have a very interesting job. First I find something that was never shot before, and then I try to shoot it the way nobody did before!" Bence says. And he has got an example. At present he and his team work out a story: cranes resting on water, nighttime, stars are shining. Wide angle shooting. The problem is, if you want the stars the F-stop has to be very big, at least 2.8. But if do it the cranes in the front wouldn't be sharp. We can use a very small aperture instead – F16 and flashing at the same time. What you get is sharp cranes but no stars. What we want to do is increase the exposure to 20 seconds, start with F16 for a while and then change to F2.8 with the shutter still open. Technically this is impossible. But the most interesting things for Bence start with the word "impossible". Finally the solution was found – with help of electric engine, remote control, piece of fishing line and... a hole in the camera.

Oh yes – this is surely a very interesting job if you are ready to pierce a camera that costs $4000. Then, it's understood: the "invisible photographer" has no other passion but the birds. Had he been born in the Middle Ages, he would have had the fame equal to the fame of St. Franciscus, who could speak birds language. But of course there's no regret – it is much better for all of us that he was born in the age of photography and reflective glass.