I travelled back in time over the weekend. I went to Hungary and it felt as if I’d returned to my childhood days in southern England.
I flew south from Budapest in a friend’s Russian-built light aircraft to an area near the border with Serbia, passing over mixed farms with acres of permanent pasture, long stretches of perfect nest-building hedgerows, heaps of untouched corners left for wild flowers, and masses of natural woodland interspersed not by tarmac roads but by simple dirt tracks – or nothing at all.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. With a population of just over 10 million people in 93,030 sq km (compared with 60 million in 244,020 sq km here in the UK), the Hungarians haven’t reduced their good wildlife habitat to mere scraps within a predominantly arable or urban environment like we have.
I was visiting two of Hungary’s top wildlife photographers – Máté Bence (www.matebence.hu) and Karai Csaba (in Hungary, the surname always comes before the forename).
Bence has spent the past few years building a plethora of bird hides around his village home of Pusztaszer, in a vast low-lying region known as the Great Plain or puszta (the deserted).
There are 13 hides so far, and he’ll set up more this winter. But these aren’t normal hides. They have been designed and built by this well-established bird photographer specifically for other bird photographers – and they virtually guarantee great pictures. In fact, they’re so innovative and offer such extraordinary picture-taking opportunities that you’d have to be downright incompetent not to shoot something pretty good.
One hide, designed primarily for rollers, hoopoes and kestrels, was a delightful log cabin (it felt as large as my first flat) built on stilts some three storeys above the ground. Another, reached after a long hike through a near-impenetrable reed bed, nestled right on the edge of a lake. Some of the hides even had Wi-Fi internet access – despite being in the middle of nowhere – so busy bird photographers can answer their emails while waiting for front-cover shots to present themselves a few metres away.
One of my favourite hides overlooked an infinity pool – a natural-looking pond in the heart of the forest that was almost overflowing with water. It was practically impossible to see where the water ended and the forest began. The hide itself was dug into the ground so we were shooting at water level (through one-way glass – we could see the birds but they couldn’t see us).
I’d never seen birds in quite the same way before. The reflections of them coming to drink and bathe were enough to make any wildlife photographer’s heart flutter; the glorious greenery of the surrounding trees and bushes made every picture complete.
Bird-wise, everything we have (or used to have) in Britain seemed to be better in Hungary. In the first morning alone, our infinity pool was visited by no fewer than 18 species, including sparrowhawks, green and great spotted woodpeckers, spotted flycatchers, golden orioles and hawfinches. And lots of them.
In the UK we may have the best-documented wildlife in the world (all right – arguably, we tie with the Dutch and the Japanese) but Hungary seems to have more to document. The country has some of the best birdwatching in Europe, with everything from aquatic warblers to white-tailed sea eagles. Every village even has its own white storks – their enormous stick nests perched on house roofs, church towers and telegraph poles.
I never fail to marvel at how attractive and varied much of our own countryside still is, but it’s hard not to crave the good old days when there was much more of it. Now that I’ve travelled forward in time, back to over-crowded southern England, I miss it even more.
Mark Carwardine is an award-winning wildlife writer, photographer and broadcaster
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