Walking back one evening from his hide to the farm where he was staying, Bence first smelt the fire. Turning off the trail, he came to 'the awe-inspiring sight' of a curtain of fire stretching across the Pantanal. It may have been started naturally or by cattle farmers clearing the land to stimulate grass growth. 'The tallest flames must have been nearly 5 metres [16 feet] high,' says Bence. 'With such intense firelight, it was a challenge to work out how to photograph the scene. I used a long-exposure and stretched out my arm to cover the flames with my hands to expose the stars. Then, for the last second or so, I took away my hands to expose the flames.' With the crackling noise and the intensity of the heat, it was a memorable event. 'At times, the smoke was terrible. But at least it kept the mosquitoes away.'
King of the vultures
After two months of labour, Bence's hide was finally excavated and the king vulture banquet ready. 'I'd seen nothing but black vultures for weeks,' he says. 'So I'd been to the nearest town, 40 kilometres [25 miles] away from where I was staying in northern Costa Rica, to see if I could scrounge a carcass that might attract a king.' A sympathetic butcher gave him three cow heads. 'I knew that king vultures can smell fresh meat from several kilometres away, but it was a great surprise to me when they turned up almost straight away.' With a powerful, sharp beak, complete with a meat hook, and a rasping, flesh-stripping tongue, a king vulture (right) is itself a bit like butcher. It is often the first vulture to rip open a tough carcass, and this allows other vultures such as the black vulture (left) access to the softer meat inside.
When photographing birds from his waterside hide in Hungary's Kiskunsági National Park, Bence would sleep in the hide. It was the only way to photograph the birds at dawn (entering the hide at that time would have disturbed them). Bence rigged up a special setup to get a water-level view of his subjects. 'The camera was in an aquarium 3 metres (11 feet) away, linked to my laptop,' says Bence. 'So whenever I took a picture, I could immediately see it on the screen.' To get around the problem of the birds smearing the aquarium with muck, he fixed a spool of transparent printer's film to the front, so he could, by remote control, roll around a clean piece. 'This technique, plus my fisheye lens, gave me a new perspective.' This shot is his favourite - a grey heron that had perched on the hide suddenly swooped down on a great white egret standing on the aquarium. The legs are the heron's, the wings the egret's.
The newly fledged burrowing owl chicks (here, each balancing on one leg, with the female attending to some necessary grooming) still couldn't fly. They had emerged from their den only three days before. But they were impossible to photograph for much of the day. 'In the sweltering heat, they would tuck themselves into the shade of my hide.' But as soon as the temperature cooled, they would flutter up to the top of the spoil-heap created when their parents had first excavated the nest hole. So every day for a week, Bence would crawl into his hide at about 6pm to photograph them in the short window of opportunity before the sun set over the Pantanal.
A marvel of ants
When Bence first tried to photograph leaf-cutter ants in action, he thought it was going to be easy. It wasn't, but, he researched their complex society and spent hours following them in the Costa Rican rainforest. 'They proved to be wonderful subjects,' says Bence, who discovered that they were most active at night. He would follow a column as it fanned out into the forest. Each line terminated at a tree, shrub or bush. 'The variation in size of the pieces they cut was fascinating - sometimes small ants seemed to carry huge bits, bigger ones just small pieces.'
Of his winning shot, he says, 'I love the contrast between the simplicity of the shot and the complexity of the behaviour.' Lying on the ground to take the shot, he also discovered the behaviour of chiggers (skin-digesting mite larvae), which covered him in bites.
Caiman's little mouthful
It's not often that wildlife photographers simply come across a subject. This, though, was just about as spontaneous as a shot can be. Bence had spent a long, hard day building a hide. As he headed back to his lodge in Brazil's Pantanal, he encountered a 3-metre-long (11-foot) caiman ambling across the lawn. Dangling from its jaws were the remains of a young armadillo. In the dry season, caimans are forced to venture farther afield to hunt, but it's rare to see one with prey. 'I raced to get my telephoto lens,' says Bence. 'By the time I got back, the caiman was nearly at the river, so I dropped to my knees and started shooting. I had no strategy, no plan, no hide. I was so lucky to get the shot.'
Eric Hosking Portfolio Award
Bence Máté, Hungary
Nikon D700 + 20mm f2.8 lens; 20 sec at f2.8; ISO 1000; Gitzo tripod.