Destination Duluth Photographer Profile Series
Rich Hoeg is "The Owl Guy"
Renowned for his Images of Birds, Northern Lights
The best advice Duluth-based photographer Rich Hoeg can offer is to be prepared - at all times. “I always have a camera with me,” he said. “Even if I’m not going out specifically to take photos, I know that if you don’t have your camera, something will happen.”
Hoeg has witnessed some pretty incredible, unexpected sights over the years. “Once in Oklahoma while bicycle touring, I saw a Meadowlark migration in progress,” he noted. “I had never seen one before, and there were just hundreds and hundreds of birds.”
Another spontaneous event occurred when a Crested Caracara (also known as a Mexican Eagle) landed on a flowering cactus - right next to him. “It happened in Texas as the Bluebonnets were flowering,” he said.
Rich Hoeg is undoubtedly a bit of a renaissance man. In addition to his photography, he is Ivy League-educated and enjoyed a lengthy career in the software industry until his retirement. He is also a hardy outdoor adventurer, having completed several long-distance bicycle tours. He is even a published author.
But, Hoeg is probably most well-known for his avian imagery. His website, 365 Days of Birds, is the result of a self-directed project where he took photos of birds every day for a year. To this day, people still affectionately refer to Hoeg as “The Owl Guy.”
For Hoeg, a lifelong Duluthian, his love affair with photography began in childhood. “As a kid, my parents let me get twelve photographs developed every summer,” he explained. Digital cameras would not appear on the scene until much later.
“Really, it was the birds that got me interested,” he added. “We had some feeders by our house in a grove of pine trees. While playing in the forest near my childhood home, I would hear the Blue Jay mating call, and watch the birds get drunk on fermented berries.”
As a photographer, Hoeg is mostly self-taught. In his youth, he learned through simple experimentation. Later, as an adult, he took community education classes, read articles, and watched YouTube videos to hone his craft.
Today, his equipment of choice includes a Canon SX70 and a Sony A6300. He explained the purpose of each camera.
“The Canon is a super-zoom bridge camera that has a small sensor but is good in bright conditions. And the Sony is a higher-quality, mirrorless camera that is lighter, with fewer moving parts. It’s a good option for low light.” He also carries a monopod to help stabilize his camera and prevent blurry photos.
Education and Career
Hoeg earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Dartmouth, and later, a master’s degree in economics and statistics from the University of Rochester, New York. He spent 28 years working at Honeywell, until his retirement in 2013. There, Hoeg worked as a senior software project manager and helped build Honeywell’s web infrastructure, including its first-ever websites.
Hoeg chooses to remain active in his retirement. He was one of Destination Duluth’s first Board members, serving three years on the Board, with another three as Board Chair.
He has also served on the Board of Directors for Warm Showers, a non-profit hospitality exchange service for people engaging in bicycle touring, and for the French River Lutheran Church. Additionally, Hoeg works as a volunteer naturalist for Minnesota’s Sax-Zim Bog.
He is currently in the process of publishing his 6th children’s birding book, called Smokey Finds a Rainbow, about a Great Grey Owl who was born in the northern pine forest and sets off in search of seeing its first rainbow. Hoeg’s books are available for purchase on his website, and he also generously gives away free PDF copies.
Interestingly, Hoeg met his future wife, Molly – who is also from Duluth - in Rochester, New York. “We learned that we grew up only a mile apart, but went to different schools,” Hoeg explained.
Although the Hoegs lived in the Twin Cities for about 20 years, they eventually returned to Duluth, where they plan to stay. For those thinking about relocating to this area, Hoeg shared, “My biggest advice is to come visit in the winter. Everyone loves to visit in the fall, when Duluth is showing itself off in the best way. To live here, you need to embrace the outdoors, and understand that there are mornings that are -20. But there are all kinds of ways to be engaged in winter, such as curling.”
Rich and Molly have now been married for almost 40 years, and have three adult children and seven grandchildren. The Hoegs live in a home they built on Seven Bridges Road, in Duluth’s Lakeside neighborhood.
Hoeg’s preferred niche is wildlife photography. He enjoys snapping photos of many, many species of birds and other creatures. He also specializes in images of the northern lights. He openly shares some of his favorite locations to capture both, on his website.
As noted, Hoeg’s most well-known project was “365 Days of Birds,” which ran from 2014-2015, and is also his website name. He explained a bit about how the project began.
“If you don’t know how to do something, the best way to learn is to just do it. I wanted to get better at photography, and I had heard of other ‘365-day photo’ projects. I decided to take a photo of a bird every day, no matter what the conditions, or where I was located.”
Hoeg chose birds because he enjoys them; in fact, he considers himself both a birder and a naturalist. “A lot of wildlife photographers don’t know a lot about their subjects, but I’m very interested in the species of birds and their habitat,” he said. “I track the family of owls that live near my home, and always learn about the animals I’m interested in.”
Another of Hoeg’s projects was called “30 Superior Nights.” Here, he photographed Lake Superior for 30 nights, to improve his nighttime photography skills.
Rich and Molly Hoeg have participated in many long-distance bike tours over the years. The couple also loves to travel. One of their favorite locales is Norway, where Rich has captured some stellar images of the northern lights.
Hoeg is also an accomplished trail runner. About two and a half years ago, however, while trail running, he experienced a scary health incident.
“I was running on the Lester-Amity Trails, and I collapsed,” he shared. “It turned out I had a heart valve problem. My Garmin device said I was on the ground for 30 minutes.”
After crying out for help, a young couple came to his aid. Ultimately, Hoeg spent 14 days in the hospital, after having open-heart surgery.
Thankfully, today, he is healthy and well. But he has changed a few things.
“I always make sure my wife knows where I am. I carry my cell phone and/or a GPS.” He has also added an e-bike into his exercise regime, to help him crest big hills. But he remains as active as ever and still exercises about five days per week.
The Owl Guy has some great tips to offer to other photographers. “Get off the automatic setting, and learn to use your camera,” he noted. “Learn to use the aperture and shutter priority in combination with manual control of your ISO.
“I would also suggest doing a project like 365 Days of Birds, that forces you to get out and learn,” he added. “For me, I love being out in the woods. I’ll go out every day.”
To view Rich Hoeg’s photography, please visit his website, 365daysofbirds.com. He also created - and maintains - two Facebook photography pages: Minnesota Boreal Forest Birds & Wildlife, and Northern Lights – Lake Superior Region.