More than a garden: Former NWC professor turns his attention to the birds

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Rufous hummingbirds move from bloom to bloom, first feeding on brilliant red penstemon flowers, hanging from the stem in rows, and then move to glowing blue globe thistle. The tiny, acrobatic birds come to Deb Koelling’s garden for food, water and shelter. They’re the stars in a spectacular free show. And Rob, her husband of 40 years, is there with his camera.

While the hummingbirds are his favorites, the garden draws a variety of birds. Wilson’s and yellow warblers, great horned owls and sharp-shinned hawks make occasional appearances. Eurasian collared doves, house sparrows, finches and starlings are daily visitors.

Behind the camera, the former Northwest College English professor is in a world of his own. There’s no use in talking to him when an unidentified bird arrives in the garden. Visitors learn to wait and enjoy the show — both of birds and Rob as he contorts and fires, checks the back of his camera for results, curses and tries again.

The challenge of photographing birds attracts him. He’s obsessed. But they weren’t his first subjects. Photography has been a passion for decades.

He concentrated on sports when the couple’s children, Everett and Glenn, were in school. Then he moved to landscapes, photographing spots rarely seen by tourists — like the Polecat Bench.

“I like the interplay of sky and land and light, and the light up there changes so much,” Koelling told the online publication Yellowstone Gate in 2012. His art has been demanding attention for many years.

Now, he chases the birds.

“I like to say it’s like hunting, but you don’t have to gut what you shot,” he said.

When Rob began his obsession with birds, Deb started researching flowers for her garden that would attract them. She planted perennials, making sure the varieties she chose wouldn’t bloom at the same time — providing food for the birds and pollinators throughout the summer.

When they bought the house, the backyard was a blank slate. Now thick lilac bushes line the back of the property — a dark background for the sunlit blossoms and birds, making them pop in Rob’s photographs. The trees they planted 20 years ago are mature now. Rob hangs feeders from the limbs. Hops grow west of the deck.

Deb loved to brew beer and would make 5 gallons of vanilla bourbon porter from the fresh Cascade, Centennial and Columbus hops in her garden for the family’s annual Christmas party.

Rob and Deb were both working toward doctorates in English when they met at the University of Nebraska. Rob had a strange idea for a first date: racquetball. As the date progressed, Rob learned why racquetball has never been a great first date idea.

“I hit her in the eye,” he said.

They both loved beer and the Cornhuskers. Their love for the university was obvious when they married and moved from Nebraska to Powell. Rob still wears his black ball cap with the big red N. They even tried to grow buffalo grass in the front yard. (It didn’t work.)

Rob and Deb eventually started a family while both teaching at the college. Everett and Glenn are grown now, but two rowdy dogs, Tesla and Doodle, have filled the void. The Koellings became popular residents, loved by students and faculty at the college and people they met in the community.

Koelling’s portfolio is more than a collection of winged subjects. His photos show birds at their best. The frames he chooses from the thousands he takes tell a story, show grace of movement and amazing detail. He took his only photography class in the early 80s while teaching at Northwest. Scott Horton, former photography professor, taught the class.

“He gave me a B,” Koelling said.

The two were instant friends. Before retiring, Koelling often walked down the hall to Horton’s office for a critique. He didn’t want lip service, he wanted an honest opinion.

“The last few years he has blossomed. His bird photography is just amazing,” Horton said.

Deb was handy with a camera as well, he said.

“She took my online class. She wasn’t as serious as Rob but they planned to do photography together when she retired. But then she fell ill,” Horton said.

Deb was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“It took the wind out of me. She was so active,” said Horton, who was with Rob and Deb at a conference in Billings when they received the diagnosis.

The Koellings knew what was coming and that Deb was going to be housebound.

Deb worked until she was forced to quit. ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that eventually causes paralysis. While treatments can slow the disease and reduce discomfort, there is no cure. They renovated the first floor of their home to be better suited for a wheelchair and built a big deck out back with a ramp, so Deb could still easily enjoy the garden she spent years developing.

Now paralyzed, Deb watches Rob play with the dogs and photograph the birds through the patio doors from her wheelchair. When she first started seeing the disease progress, he would carry her books to school and help as much as he could as she struggled to carry on a normal life. He is her main caretaker and rarely leaves home for more than an hour.

Unable to speak, Deb communicates by blinking her eyes. Rob counts as she blinks to get letters, slowly building words and eventually sentences. They work together to communicate as much as they can. The English professor’s vocabulary hasn’t suffered.

“She spelled out pugnacious the other day,” he said.

The garden has become an oasis, a place where Rob can take a moment to himself to photograph the birds. Then, after editing his take, he brings his photographs of the beautiful birds in the garden for Deb to enjoy.

“I always told Rob his backyard has to be magical,” Horton said.

Koelling’s photography continually improves as he learns the mannerisms of the birds that flock to Deb’s garden. The perennials she planted will come back each year, drawing in the birds that Rob loves to photograph and giving him more chances as he chases the perfect photograph — each time with a little bit of Deb’s love within the frame.

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