Lost and Found and the Short-eared Owl

Separate encounters with three different raptors species woven together through a harrowing game of hide and seek.

Found the Snowy

During recent years, in the northeastern United States, winters have produced irruptions of snowy owls. It is believed that, following a banner breeding season, the higher population of over-wintering owls forces the youngsters further south in search of food. In 2017, there were so many that one found its way to Bradford County, Pennsylvania.

Even during irruption years, a snowy owl this far south was so rare that photographers from several states made the trek to witness the well-traveled raptor. The location was a family farm that offered the ability to view the owl from a roadside, without causing undue stress. One mid-January afternoon I made the one-hour drive to seek it out.  I watched near a roadside barn for more than an hour as it hunted in the distance.  Finally, shortly after sunset the snowy flew closer to the road, perched atop a utility post for several minutes and then flew back toward the forest.

Unexpected Owl

Weeks later, following an epic African adventure, I returned to Bradford County, hoping for more exciting snowy opportunities. I arrived to find the snowy owl more than 200 yards away, enjoying a goldmine of voles near a stream. I busied myself with pulling out my 2x teleconverter and 500mm lens which I then propped on the window ledge of my car. While watching the distant snowy, nearby movement caught my eye. Shifting my vision, I discovered that a short-eaered owl was perched on the hillside less than 30 yards from my Jeep!

Short-eared owls are drawn to the same open meadows or farmland that attract snowies. They typically hunt on the wing, flying low and searching for small mammals on which to prey. That evening I was treated to a private viewing  in beautiful light as this short-eared owl devoured its meal, tossed the remains over the hill, shook its feathers and flew off. Forgetting the snowy owl entirely, I continued watch until well after sunset as this beautiful short-eared alternated between perching and hunting. This had been my first sighting of a wild short-eared owl and it was magical!

Only One Copy

I returned home and stored one copy of images onto a zip drive, edited a single frame and then set it aside. I spent the next few weeks immersed in my African Safari photos and forgot to make copies. Weeks later I finally made time to return to my short-eared owl experience. I plugged in the drive and waited. Nothing. My PC would not recognize the hard drive. Several reboots on multiple PCs yielded no success. I scoured the internet and found very little useful information. Not trusting my data with anyone else, I sighed and set it aside. Over the years, as I upgraded to new PCs I would try again with no luck.

Peregrine Mishap

One July Monday in 2020, I spent an amazing hour with the Peregrine Falcon fledglings that I monitor. In my fifth season of distantly watching this family, this had been their most successful year.  Three healthy females had matured and were becoming confident with their flight and more sure-footed in their landings.  That July evening the fledglings chose the most spectacularly scenic branches on which to perch. Spending time alone with these beautiful raptors was a thrill and I drove home feeling exhilarated.

Having learned from my short-eared owl experience, I thought, that evening I rushed into my office, prepared to make three copies.  I plopped my card into the reader, and…nothing. The photos weren’t there! I checked every single card.  I slowly realized that, during my haste when swapping memory cards from my case into my camera, I must have formatted the wrong card.  The next morning I woke at dawn, made the hour drive back to the cliffs and futilely scoured the ground for a dropped disk.  It was a longshot, but I was heartsick.

While at work that day, I oscillated between anger for my recklessness and sadness over losing those precious moments. Finally home after a long, brutal day, I began to research file restoration.  I read several articles comparing applications and finally settled on a tool that promised photo recovery in nearly every scenario, Stellar Photo Recovery.

Found Footage

I selected my plan, installed the software, mounted the disk and waited.  The software churned for nearly an hour.  Finally, at 1am, one photo appeared, soon followed by all of the others. Tears streamed down my cheeks, relief rushing through in waves.  I am so grateful to have more than just the wonderful memory of my incredible evening!


Return of the Shorty

The following weekend my thoughts returned to that epic 2017 short-eared owl encounter.  I considered my corrupt drive, DEV001, which had contained those long-lost images. Having nothing to lose, I plugged it in and pulled up the recovery software.  Several devices appeared in the window.  Device DEV001 was listed!  I nervously clicked on the drive letter, wishing but not expecting it to open.  Folders appeared.  I continued to search until I found that date in February 2017.  I opened the folder to find that every single image from that long-ago winter evening was there! Three years later, my error that resulted in the loss of important falcon images not only restored those photos, but so many more forgotten moments from three years before.


Lessons Learned

Below are just a few lessons I have learned over the years, and especially from this sequence of raptor encounters and subsequent game of lost and found:

  • Format memory cards at home before you go out into the field.  Formatting in the field during active moments wastes valuable time.  And in the flurry of activity you never want to accidentally format the wrong card.
  • If you have the capability, it is recommended to set your camera to store images on two cards.  This reduces the likelihood that corruption will result in image loss.
  • In your card wallet, have a system that quickly indicates which cards have been used and which are formatted.  For example, I place my cards with the logo facing up when they are clear.  When a card is full I place it with the logo facing down.  This was a simple, yet brilliant suggestion from friend and mentor Todd Gustafson during my 2017 trip to Africa. 
  • As soon as you return from the field, make copies of your images, on separate devices.  When you are on a multi-day field shoot, do this daily.  Ultimately, you want to make three copies of each raw image on separate devices.  Store one copy in a fire-proof safe or safe deposit box.
  • When you are traveling, carry with you multiple methods of uploading images from your memory cards.  During my first trip to Africa, in 2016, my reader faulted and I had no way to store images.

Wonders of Nature

Serendipity is a common theme in my photography, triggering events far superior than any I could have imagined.  As I head out into the field, no matter how much I have researched my subject or location, nature has invariably surprised me.  Remember to “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” – E. B. White

Thank you so much for reading my story.  Be careful and stay safe!

Short-eared Owl Images


2 thoughts on “Lost and Found and the Short-eared Owl”

  1. I’m so glad you told this story! It is an amazing one, and I am so glad to see the images that go with it. They are treasures! I am definitely making a note of that recovery software you used, and all your tips as well!

  2. Love the Short Ear images!!! I am working with Stellar right now to see if I can recover an external hard drive. I hope I can be as fortunate as you!!!

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