Common merganser chicks, trumpeter swans and ruby-throated hummingbirds. Snowy owls, snow geese and snowy egrets. Rough legged hawks, downy woodpeckers and green-winged teal. Even a pigeon.
Day upon day, over a year's time ending in mid- January, Rich Hoeg of Duluth tracked those birds and more. Or rather, he pursued and photographed them, mainly across northern Minnesota. The end result is what he's called 365 Days of Birds. "I had no idea what I was getting myself into," he said.
Oddly — or interestingly — Hoeg wasn't so fixated on birds when his "project" began, he said. One needs to go back a year and a half when he retired from his software job at Honeywell. Hoeg turned his self-described "techie" attention on photography — and what to do with his new interest. He took a community education photo class. He perused Flickr feeds. He also researched people who'd stuck with yearlong photo projects.
"If you pick a specific subject that you are interested in, you increase the difficulty quite a bit," Hoeg said. "I have found that increasing the difficulty in life is a good thing to do because the end result is really beneficial. And so I chose birding."
He said he has enjoyed birds since childhood, but "it was photography first, birding second."
He decided to start last year on the birthday of his wife, Molly: Jan. 23.
The hours and miles quickly piled up. Hoeg averaged about 35 miles a day, by wheel and on foot. Pressure became a companion. Even an occasional flash of paranoia. He'd have days of three or four hours trying to find something different.
"Truly as you get deeper into the project, the pressure grows and grows. At least if you are somebody who has self-discipline," Hoeg said.
At times Hoeg had to stretch his notion of birds to make his daily quota. Remember the baseball All-Star Game last July at Target Field and those roaring Air Force Thunderbirds? Hoeg saw his chance and grabbed it, going to the Duluth Airport, camera at the ready, as the Thunderbirds took off for Minneapolis.
"I was willing to be a little liberal with the bird idea on occasion," Hoeg said. "You've got to have some fun with it."
Hoeg had other revelatory moments. His photo skills improved, but the biggest benefit was probably of the human type. Hoeg met people into birding. He met people into photography. And that overlap introduced him to a cross-section of photo groups. He connected with the Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and with them spent desperate, subzero nights on remote roads along the North Shore. Hoeg loved it. He also found some volunteer work at the visitor's center at the Sax-Zim Bog, a birding mecca to the deep north near Meadowlands, Minn.
"I knew I was getting good when I had one of my photographs stolen," Hoeg said. Some of his new photo friends recognized one of his photos — for sale — on another person's website. "So I guess in one sense that is the stamp of approval from people: You have a photograph stolen."
Distilling rare encounters and thousands of miles of journey, Hoeg quickly zeroed in on the photo that gave him the most pride. It happened on Day 161 on Rainy Lake. The subject was a bald eagle. Bobbing in 2-foot waves, Hoeg snapped the regal bird on the move. "It's just a classic photograph. … I said to myself, 'Man, I've arrived.' "