The Marievale Project

Will Goodlet

I've been spending a lot of time at Marievale recently, putting in the hours mostly standing around waiting for stuff to happen.

It's great to have somewhere (just) less than 100km away to visit regularly. I'm posting the results of my little project here, you can check in from time to time to see what I've managed to turn up :)

Marievale 30th June

I had a weekend off last week after arriving back in SA on Friday night on what may be the worst flight of my life, I just didn't have the energy to get up and start driving at 4am Saturday morning. Age is a terrible thing.

I did manage to get down to Marievale on the 30th and I had a bit of a shock. There has been a veld fire through the reserve (or controlled burning?). I rocked up in my usual spot, the light was the best so far, with a lazy smoggy/misty thing going on and a fiery sunrise. Unfortunately, there were no gulls and hardly any other birds either.

The ice rink

The ice rink

The nesting sites appeared to have been abandoned and in the distance, I could see a disturbing shape. The dead body of a gull with its wings spread half in the water and half out. I don't know what has happened while I have been away but that entire section which previously had been so busy was now silent.


I tried to find some action elsewhere later on after my timelapse had completed but sadly traffic was very very slow. A little later in the day I met up with someone who had asked for assistance with their bird in flight photography I hope that at least I was helpful and could offer one or two tips that I have found useful in my own photography.


Marievale 16th June

Well, week 9 was a bit of a bust. I had high hopes and decided to change my usual shooting spot and my usual technique, just to see what would happen. I chose a spot on the causeway facing South East and intended to shoot both across the rising sun and away North and West over the water and into the pink dawn sky.

Grey-headed gull at dawn, Marievale.

Grey-headed gull at dawn, Marievale.

That sort of worked, although there was far less flight action in this position. What didn't work was the time-lapse I painfully set up.

With all the people passing (the security van 3 times) I had a lot of light from headlights in the exposures. I won't be trying it again!

Grey-headed gulls fighting, Marievale South Africa.

Grey-headed gulls fighting, Marievale South Africa.

The lapse also went wrong from a technical perspective, I tried to set it up with a 10-stop Neutral Density filter, this in order to slow the exposures in the daylight phase. It worked, but the interval was too long and the film now looks choppy from the long interval and not from the short exposure. Oh well. If you aren't making mistakes in photography, then you aren't doing it right!

Hottentot Teal, Marievale South Africa.

Hottentot Teal, Marievale South Africa.

Marievale 9th & 10th June

This marked my 8th straight week photographing at Marievale and I'm finding that the more often I am there the more I am enjoying it. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to spend the whole day there even though, this weekend the light was excellent even late into the day.

Pair of gulls at sunrise, Marievale, South Africa.

Pair of gulls at sunrise, Marievale, South Africa.

I must try to get some evening photography in too - it's just the very early start, 4am and the horrible driving home on a Saturday night with all the crazies sort of puts me off.

The morning light is sublime, with tendrils of mist rising off the water and a low haze lying in the valley, one can shoot either into or away from the sun.

My modus operandi is to stand in a spot from before sunrise (which is late at around 6:45am at the moment) and simply stay there, taking advantage of whatever happens close-by.

Unlucky Frog with Gull attached, Marievale, South Africa.

Unlucky Frog with Gull attached, Marievale, South Africa.

My favourite spot is facing the Eucalyptus trees with the sun rising quarter right which allows me to backlight the flying birds against the darker trees. It's an arty kind of treatment but one which I am really revelling in. On Sunday, I even had my own personal soundtrack - a distant choir serenaded me, the music wafting over the water.

If you are looking at this on Google chrome (version 66) and the video won't play, please use a different browser. Chrome will not play Vimeo video any longer for some reason - probably because it competes with Youtube (which google owns!). Sunrise over Marievale

I've been focusing on the gulls, which nest nearby but I am always on the lookout for the various species of duck. From the diminutive Hottentot Teal to the large Cape Shoveler. These, for their part, fly like bullets low over the reed beds or even in between. They are VERY difficult targets, especially when landing because they always seem to have last minute second thoughts and shoot off in the most bizarre directions before crashing into the water.

So on Sunday, I finally got lucky and managed to fire off a chaotic burst at some Shovelers flying by like missiles. Most were out of focus or clipped but one frame worked!

If only, the head of the 5th bird wasn't obscured... Oh well, if everything was perfect there would be no point in trying to improve!

Cape Shovelers backlit by the morning light, Marievale, South Africa.

Cape Shovelers backlit by the morning light, Marievale, South Africa.


Marievale 2nd June

It was COLD! My hands were hurting which was great because it reminded me of being a little kid again at boarding school in England. When it snowed, we weren't allowed to wear more than one Rugby shirt and got into trouble if we pulled it down over our hands. Man they used to sting when we finally got to put them in warm water. It's always good to be reminded about when we are young even if it is pain that brings the memory back!

Marievale didn't disappoint, I spent the morning in my usual spot on the banks next to the gulls. I have been 7 weeks straight now and have started to notice and distinguish individuals. One of my favourites is called 'Old one leg' on account of, you guessed it, having one leg. She's a very feisty bird and doesn't take any shit. That's saying something in the gull world!

I got some gorgeous colour in the western sky and tried to set the gulls off against it as they flew over the soft golden reed beds. I am fascinated by the textures of the reeds and the beautiful transition from gold to purple and blue in the sky. I try at every opportunity to show how the birds fit in with their environment here. 



Marievale 26th May


Today was sunny and bright but I think I got a beautiful timelapse this morning. I've lucked into it really, the dead plants at the waters edge take on a surreal glow in the pre-dawn light because they are tinged with frost. The blue hues look wonderful to my eye.

Then, a little later, the sun rises and seems to breathe over the water, the cooler air over the water evaporates and looks like breath. You can't really see it with the naked eye but the camera can and it looks great in that bright winter sun!

At the same time all that is going on, the frost on the plants melts and they turn gold, while the sky changes from gold to blue in a funny sort of role reversal. It is magic and it needs to be seen to be appreciated - which is why we all love photography right?!!

It was a special day too, because I finally got to meet Patti McCarogher in person today and share a coffee and chat.  One of the (many) things I like about a place like Marievale is that it draws a regular bunch of people. Sit in a hide long enough or stand on the edge of the road and say howzit and you will eventually run into many people who you might know virtually from Facebook etc...

Winter Dawn over Marievale

Winter Dawn over Marievale

Marievale 19th May 2018

Today was a remarkable day! This time a year ago I photographed an otter and today, exactly a year later I saw something truly remarkable. A group of otters - what's the collective noun for otters? A Romp of otters, that's right a Romp!

These otters were truly romping. There were about 8 of them causing mayhem. The Grey-headed gulls were dive-bombing them while their black, sinuous shapes were so fluid, they made the water look static.

It was one of the most amazing sightings of my life and one I'll never forget it because these otters were romping with a truly enormous Carp, they had caught it and their swirling bodies were tearing it apart as it tried to swim away!

The otters were quite distant and the light was poor, their black bodies are very hard to photograph against the bright water. I did my best to record the action but sometimes one just has to put the camera aside and enjoy the moment.


Today was special for another reason besides the otter sighting. It was the very first day that I shot timelapses using my home-made rail and timelapse controller.

I made this device with much smoke, solder and confusion in August and September last year while my wife was recovering from an illness. It took my mind off things. It took me an age to finally figure everything out and today was the day and Marievale the place!

It worked like a charm and has opened up a whole new world of creativity for me. I'm sharing the video I made with it here.


Marievale 12th May 2018

Today was about capturing the Grey-headed gulls, it's nesting season for them and they are busing keeping their islands safe for their chicks, patrolling the airspace and generally being amazing and active birds.

They may be common and they may just be gulls, but their sheer energy makes them fascinating subjects! I've just been standing on the banks and in the bushes on the side of the marshes with a tripod, a long lens and a large flask of coffee.

Once you spend the time, there is so much to see and witness. I enjoy the quiet too, arriving before sunrise and setting up in the dark is a little nerve-wracking but once the day starts, the peacefulness of the place is calming.

6th May 2018

Today was all about gorgeous, if brief, morning light, sunshine and diversity. I found lots of amazing things to look at and it was a bit of a revelation too because today, I didn't set foot in any of the hides.

I decided I would spend time on the banks and edges of the marshland and just wait to see what unfolds and boy did I find some wonderful subjects! I'm not sure the hides are worth the time anymore - they just limit your freedom of movement - both in terms of moving your lens and body and your movement around the reserve.

I don't photograph much from my car either, instead, I've been moving to a spot, getting out the car and setting up a tripod in the shade cast by the vehicle and waiting for things to unfold. It has been great and the birds don't seem to mind much at all, after an hour or so you are just another part of the furniture.

30th April 2018

My arrival at Marievale this morning was an accident. I had intended to hit the water-level hides at Zibulo where a particularly energetic cormorant had caught my eye with its fishing antics. Steyn Joubert nailed him so beautifully, go take a look.

I arrived at Marievale because I got up too late to make it out to Zibulo. I had a terrible morning, I smelled exhaust smoke and suddenly realised that the back door of my landrover had swung open (it does that from time to time when I forget to close it) and I thought all my camera gear had rolled out onto the road in the darkness.

We are talking two camera bodies, a 100-400, 24-105, 400mm F2.8 and both teleconverters along with a flash and various other bits and pieces. Basically EVERYTHING! I was a little distraught to say the least and turned back in a blind panic, driving on the wrong side of the road in the hopes of seeing my camera bag in the headlights. I saw nothing and after 10 minutes driving I had retraced my path back to the front door.

I didn't know what to do and turned on the interior light to look for my keys and phone. Happily, there, beside me on the passenger seat was my camera bag. Safe and sound and hidden in the darkness. It's a strange thing how fatigue affects us. One doesn't always know that one is not thinking straight.