Powell photographer wins grand prize in state contest
February 1, 2024
Via Wyoming News Exchange
POWELL - Rob Koelling's love for wildlife photography is well known in the Cowboy State. Numerous publications and exhibits feature his awe-inspiring artwork, largely of Wyoming's avian species.
He doesn't take it personally when called a bird nerd - it's a badge of honor for those who are helplessly captivated by feathered species. However, few know of his other talent - one which takes a great deal of discipline, dedication and self-control: Keeping secrets.
Early in December Koelling received a call from a representative at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department letting him know a photograph he entered in the Wyoming Wildlife Magazine annual contest had won the coveted grand prize.
More than 3,000 photos were entered this year; his photo of a hummingbird with a blossom stuck on her beak was judged the best of the best.
But the caller also requested he keep it to himself until the February edition was distributed. "Essentially they said, don't tell anybody. God, that was hard to sit on," he said in his first interview after receiving clearance to share his news.
Not a bad result for a guy who had second thoughts about entering this year's competition. He has entered every year for the past seven and was starting to wonder if he'd ever have a chance for a major award.
"I'll send something in that I think is maybe some of the best work that I've ever done, and nothing. I've had a couple of honorable mentions over the years. But this was a huge surprise," he said while working on his upcoming book featuring birds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Big Horn Basin.
Koelling has long been interested in bird photography, but really ratcheted up his efforts a decade ago after retiring from a long career as an English professor, including decades at Northwest College.
He purchased a stout truck shortly after teaching his final class to increase opportunities to go wherever the birds lead him. He has tested that limit, ending with the truck in a repair shop more than once.
But he persists daily, often traveling with Tesla, his sweet 12-year-old golden retriever.
He didn't have to go far for the winning photo. The brief moment a rufous hummingbird with a Mexican cigar plant blossom stuck on her beak was taken in his own backyard.
Koelling is locally famous for his photographs of hummingbirds, many of which he posts on social media in the dead of winter to give his friends a happy visual break from the reality of the region's typical gray skies, snow and cold.
The winning moment he captured in 1/2500th of a second wasn't the first time he had seen a blossom stuck to a hummingbird beak, but it was the first time he managed to put all the pieces together, complete with the pleasing aperture-softened background of daisies on the berm.
The garden was designed and planted to attract birds.
After his wife Deborah, also a former NWC professor, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's Disease), she knew it would soon be hard for Rob to get away for frequent wildlife photography trips due to the amount of care she would need. So, in a loving gesture, she designed the backyard garden to attract birds throughout the year specifically for her loving husband.
She died on Nov. 4, 2018 at the age of 66.
Yet the garden still draws in many species of birds.
"I feel like Deb is a part of everything that I do," he said. "I think she would be pleased."
Uncommon photographs of common birds
Koelling is working on a book of what he calls uncommon photographs of common birds, drawing from more than 30,000 images taken over the past decade.
"It's not a handbook. It's not comprehensive. As a matter of fact, it's easier for me to talk about what it's not than what it is. But, what it is, is a variety of photos of ordinary birds to give us an opportunity to maybe see them in ways that we haven't seen them before," he said.
The book won't read like most birding publications. The majority of books on the market are written for identification purposes. Koelling's desk is littered with the best of them.
Instead, he is concentrating on things he finds interesting, including humorous interpretations of the subject matter. His passion for all things feathered comes from a deep respect for his subjects and his love for their beauty and character.
His level of photography skill isn't easy to achieve. Despite the advances since the days of film and darkrooms, photography hasn't become much easier or cheaper. Wildlife photography often requires long (pricey) lenses and complicated (pricey) cameras. It also requires hours in the field and a fast computer equipped with sophisticated (pricey) software.
It also takes lots of time.
Wildlife rarely presents itself for a portrait session. Birds are especially hard to photograph. Even if you see a bird in the distance, by the time you can get close enough, sneaking to a good vantage point, they easily and often simply fly away. Capturing a bird in flight is also difficult and rarely works out when the bird is flying fleeing the presence of humans in their broad personal space.
Koelling is on the road most days scouting for new species and improved images of species he has already photographed.
He doesn't discriminate. Even common birds like American robins, or hated species like invasive European starlings can make him stop to lift his hefty gear toward the sky. They might look plain to the eye, but the details and subtle colors seen in his photographs highlight their glorious nature.
"When I started looking at [birds], I was surprised by what I saw," he said. "I wasn't seeing with my eye what the camera was capturing. I remember the first time I looked at a photo of a kestrel. I mean, I've seen this little brown bird sitting on a wire and when I zoomed in and looked at it, I thought, holy cow, this thing looks like something that ought to live in the tropics. It has orange and blue and a striped face."
He is constantly encouraging others to pick up a camera. Even if you don't have the budget for top-end equipment, almost everybody carries a camera.
"There's an old saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. Cellphones have wonderful cameras now. So if you want to get into this, it's not a bad place to start," he said.
But be warned, capturing a wonderful image - whether it's of wildlife, landscapes or friends and family - can be addictive.
"The pleasure you get with seeing an image come out that you're really happy with is worth it all," Koelling mused.
A popular contest
While contestants came from far away places - often vacationers in the Cowboy State - six of the award recipients were from Powell. Another seven winners were from nearby communities in the Big Horn Basin.
It could be that having two national parks and countless outdoor opportunities makes finding awesome photographs fairly convenient. It is also a possibility that many local photographers have moved to Park County to be near charismatic critters and bucket-list landscapes.
Either way, becoming inspired by Northwest Wyoming's natural wonders and western themes is pretty common.
With 3,023 entries vying for one of 99 places, from major awards to honorable mention (HM), regional photographers have made a large impact on the contest, winning about 15% of the available awards.
Big Horn Basin winners include Don Getty of Wapiti (Wildlife HM), Troy Powell of Powell (Wildlife HM), Randy White of Cody (Wildlife HM), Steve Propp of Worland (Wildlife HM), Tony Douzenis of Powell (Wildlife HM), Kathy Lichtendahl of Clark (two Wildlife HMs, Flora HM), Jay Mayes of Lovell (Wildlife HM), Kinley Bollinger of Powell (third place Recreation and two Scenic HMs), Christine Garceau of Powell (Scenic HM), Mark Davis of Powell (Scenic HM), Jim Gate of Worland (two Recreation HMs), Eric Janzer of Powell (Flora HM) and Anita Holdren of Cody (Flora HM).
"Photographers shared their lives and experiences the best way they can - through the camera lens," said Wyoming Wildlife Editor Tracie Brinkerd in introducing the publication's most popular edition of the year. "Some photographers spotted interesting animal behavior like a cow moose swimming with her calf as a grizzly approached, a hummingbird with a flower on its beak or lekking sharp-tailed grouse battling in the spring. Others adventured to beautiful locales to show Wyoming's amazing scenery or stayed out late hoping to capture the northern lights on the few occasions they were visible in the Cowboy State this year."
The contest was judged by three Game and Fish employees and two artists from Wyoming who brought their expertise to the table.
The publication also published a calendar from entries in a separate competition.
Don Getty is featured in March with a photo of a nanny mountain goat in the Beartooth Range and Amy Gerber is featured in September with a silhouette of a bull elk and December with a photograph of playful American river otters in snow on the banks of the Shoshone River.
Residents and nonresidents alike can enter the contests, but all photos must be taken in Wyoming.
To find information on how to enter the contest or subscribe to the magazine: wgfd.wyo.gov/ about-us/wyoming-wildlife.
To learn about Koelling's garden, see powelltribune.com/ stories/more-than-a-gardenformer-nwc-professor-turns-hisattention-to-the-birds,749.
This story was published on February 1, 2024.