Damn squirrels

Before we moved into our new house we saw evidence of animal (probably squirrel) activity in the attic. A condition of the sale was that the hole in the soffit where they were getting in be patched and some damaged ductwork be replaced. Not long after we moved in I noticed many strange sounds in the house during the day while I was alone at home working. I assumed/hoped the critters I was hearing were on the roof instead of in the attic. This went on for some time. The noises became stranger and stranger and louder and louder. I was fairly certain something was in the attic, but I didn’t know what, and part of me didn’t really want to find out.

We have a pest control place that has been taking care of spiders, mice, etc. so we asked them to come take a look. Squirrels. They were in there when the guy came out. It would be $450 to remove them and patch the holes where they were getting in. This isn’t unreasonable, but it’s really more than we can afford at the moment. I reluctantly took it upon myself to attempt to remove them. The first time I climbed up into the attic I saw two squirrels in different places. One of them I even pinned up against the wall with a board. I could have partially ended the infestation right then and there, but I didn’t have it in me to go through with it so I let the little bugger go.

The next step was to get a trap at Home Depot. I baited it with bread and peanut butter, as several people recommended online. The bread was stale and the peanut butter was organic. It was all we had. A few hours later I checked on the trap and it had been tripped, but the bait was still there and there was no squirrel inside. I reset the trap. A few hours later I checked and the bait was gone and the trap hadn’t been tripped. I guess it needed some fine tuning. I tried again the next day with fresh (stale) bread and (organic) peanut butter. This time the bait was gone once again and the trap was not triggered. Grrr. I could just hear the jokes about the squirrels outsmarting me.

After a brief hiatus for Thanksgiving travels I tried again today, this time using (organic) sunflower butter with the same old stale bread. Bingo. Within a couple hours I had one of the squirrels trapped. It was freaking out. I brought the cage outside while I waited for Melissa to come home so we could take it somewhere. I put the cage inside a rubber tub A) to doubly-ensure the rodent didn’t escape in the car and B) to try to calm it down a little, both of which were successful. We drove several miles to a park on the other side of town to release it. Adding insult to injury the damn thing urinated and defecated all over the inside of my rubber tub. As the gate opened it took off like a bat out of hell. Hopefully, we’ll never see it again.

Scared shitless

Now, I still have at least one other squirrel to catch. I hope that’s the last one, though I suppose there could be others. I wonder how much noise I’ll hear tomorrow while I work…


So there’s a “Photographic Print Competition” next month at Lincoln Square Mall. Both my wife and my father have suggested to me that I enter the competition, and they’re both pretty smart so I better do what they say.

I noticed the competition is sponsored by the Champaign County Camera Club, a club I had never heard of before, but sounded somewhat appealing to me. I checked out their website last Monday, just in time to notice one of their bi-monthly meetings was happening that evening on campus. I decided to go check it out. It was indeed interesting.

One of the odd things I learned at the meeting was the club members are not allowed to enter this competition for some reason. I’m still not exactly clear why this is the case. I mean, Second Wind Running Club puts on races in which club members are encouraged to participate. The same thing happens with events put on by Wild Card Cycling or Prairie Cycle Club.

Anyway, I didn’t join the club yet… and now I’m going to hold off doing so until after the competition. Speaking of which, I put together a shortlist of photos from 2009 I’m thinking about entering. Participants are allowed a maximum of three entries. There are multiple categories into which these photos might fit, most of which are fairly strictly defined:

  1. Architecture
  2. Animals
  3. People
  4. Nature (absolutely nothing human-made)
  5. General
  6. Manipulated (does not interest me)
  7. Youth division (ineligible)

Here are the photos currently at the top of my list:


Nature, Animals, General


Nature, Animals, General

Urbana High School

Architecture, General

Sock monkey

People, General

I’d really appreciate any feedback on which photos people think are the best. I’m sure with this audience any picture of Will will probably get an automatic vote, but try to keep in mind that photo contest judges may not be as interested in Will as many of you.

Little guy

This little guy decided to join us inside at some point (in the last few days?). Well it was pretty weak and barely moving by today. We trapped it under a glass long enough for me to take a few photos then I let it go outside. With the 0˚F temperature, I’m not sure whether this was better or worse for the Yellowjacket wasp than just letting it die inside. We’ll never know.



For what it’s worth, here’s how I took the photos. The little guy was crawling around on a piece of paper with an upside-down glass covering him. I had my trusty Canon 50D on a tripod just barely above that level with the lens about 8″ away. I used my 60 mm EF-S macro lens at f/18 for a relatively large depth of field. I had a studio strobe with a soft box at 3/4 power just off my right shoulder, providing ample light for the fast shutter speed (1/125 second), small aperture (f/18), and low ISO speed (100).

The little guy was crawling around, so I waited until he was in a good position. I then focused on it, briefly tiled the glass back (for an unobstructed shot), quickly pressed the shutter, then set the glass back down (so the thing would fly away). The final images here are cropped to roughly half the width and height of the original 15 megapixel images.

The William Hammock

When Melissa and I lived in Nicaragua for a year, right outside our room at the hostel was this hammock. It had the name William knitted into the side of it in 8″ letters. We always wondered what the story was behind this hammock–why William was sitting right outside our door.

Lucy the squirrel on the William hammock

I couldn’t find a photo showing the William part of the hammock, but here’s the rest of it. Lucy the squirrel is resting, perhaps waiting to jump on me.

It must have made more of an impression on Melissa than it did me. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that she chose the name William for our child…


The 50D

As long time readers may recall, I retired my beloved Canon Digital Rebel camera (which was a low end DSLR) last fall. I really, really wanted a high end Canon 5D mark II, but the price was simply prohibitively expensive (and they weren’t released yet). Instead I replaced my Rebel with the 5D mark II’s little sibling, the mid-range Canon 50D. The 50D has most of the features of the 5D mark II, really only lacking video and the full frame sensor, yet cost half the price.

When I got the 50D I immediately started shooting RAW instead of JPEG and switched from using iPhoto to Aperture to manage my photos. I’ve always been very interested in photography, but these three changes marked the point when I dove in more deeply.

At the same time I also purchased a pair of new lenses, a wide angle zoom (Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM) and a telephoto zoom (Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM). These are both on the low end of Canon’s top of the line L series of lenses, and they’re both much much nicer than any of the lenses I had used previously. In addition to the large apertures and great focusing, one of the neatest things about these two lenses is that the zoom mechanisms are internal to the lens on both. When you zoom in or out the lenses don’t change length.

The camera itself is relatively heavy, and these two lenses with their large glass are heavy as well. Whenever I hand the camera to someone else, the first thing they mention is how heavy the camera feels. I prefer to think of it as solid.

Canon 50D

The Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM quickly became my favorite lens

Canon 50D

The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM is great for sports

After eight months of use I can say that I’m quite happy with the camera. It’s not perfect, but it is very, very good. The resolution of the photos is very high. The focus is very fast and very sharp (particularly with the Canon L lenses).

The 50D (along with my newer lenses) have produced some of my favorite photos.

Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM (wide angle zoom)

The Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM is great indoors.

Garter toss


…and for portraits.

Musician Rob


Dynamic duo

The Bassetts

…and outdoors

Luke & Mark


It's that time of year

…and it’s perfect for landscapes


Sunrise at the Riddle Run

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM (telephoto zoom)

Marla & Brian

Happy holidays from the Ragfields


The Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens is great for sports.

50 Free

Sandra finishes the 23K with a smile

…and wildlife.

Bird on stick


Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 USM Macro

The Canon EF-S 60mm f/2.8 USM Macro lens allows close-ups.


Japanese beetle

…and landscapes.


an agile tree-dwelling rodent

…and portraits.

Ravage meets Fig

I love almost everything about this camera. I can only really think of a few complaints. First, I always leave the camera in Auto White Balance mode. When I shoot indoors (usually without a flash) the white balance almost always needs adjusted. This is simple enough to do (though I can’t always get it just right), but it’s a little annoying sometimes.

Second (and this one’s kind of big), is the camera is very noisy at higher ISO speeds. This model was supposedly much better than previous generation DSLRs, but it’s not good. In most cases 800 and above are unusable, so I rarely shoot higher than 400. That by itself isn’t atrocious. The bad part is that the automatic ISO mode will set the ISO up to 1600 (which is nearly always unusable), and it almost always errs on the side of setting the value too high. This means I can’t use the automatic ISO mode and instead I have to set it manually. I usually use 100-200 outdoors and 400 indoors. I switch between indoors and outdoors multiple times per week so I always have to remember to change the ISO settings, but I often forget. I have two cheaper cameras that solve this problem with a simple setting allowing you to choose the maximum ISO value for the automatic mode. I would love to have a similar setting on the 50D. It’s frustrating, but given that this is my biggest complaint about an extremely sophisticated piece of technology, it’s not that bad in the scheme of things.

Third, the live view focusing is very slow. Other camera manufacturers have made this work (live view focusing on my Olympus E-420 is much faster). Additionally, the traditional half-press of the shutter button does not activate autofocus in live view, a separate button is required. Perhaps they did this on purpose because they knew their live view focus was so slow. Who knows. Regardless, it has room for improvement here.

This is by far the nicest camera I’ve ever owned (or even used). Quibbles aside, I wouldn’t trade it for anything else (in the same general price range). I still dream of owning a full frame DSLR some day, but until that day comes, this one is a keeper.

The Insect Photography Workshop

Last week was National Pollinator Week. Who knew?

The UIUC entomology department held a number of events, including an insect photography workshop. I thought it would be fun to try something a little different so I walked over to the Pollinatarium yesterday for the workshop. The workshop leader is a UIUC post-doc in entomology who studies ants (my sister-in-law Kim is an entomologist who studies fire ants in Texas). He also photographs insects for text books.

Among his tips were:

  1. Know your subject
  2. Use your camera’s manual settings
  3. Simplify the background
  4. Place the subject away from the center of the frame
  5. Light is important
  6. There is no single correct way to take photographs

We tried to keep these points (and more) in mind as we walked around the nearby prairie & forest to practice. It was a lot of fun. Here are a few of my favorites.


Japanese Beetles



You can see more of my insect photos from the workshop here.

The Riddle Run 10

Today was the 10th edition of the Riddle Run, a 28.35 mile ultra-marathon fun run. Last year I showed up fairly unprepared but I still cranked out a decent run. This year I felt much more prepared than ever before. I just ran a good trail marathon in December, and I’ve been doing a long run almost every weekend since then.

Sunrise at the Riddle Run

Sunrise at Lake of the Woods park

This year’s Riddle Run set another registration record with 125 people signed up, though I don’t think that many showed up. The temperature was similar to last year (20˚ at start, 33˚ at finish), but last year there was just a light dusting of snow on the ground (which melted during the run). This year there was about 4″ of mushy snow covering the entire trail. Running in mushy snow is quite the challenge.

Snow covered trail

But what was more concerning to me than the snow was that I badly bruised my shin while mountain biking last Saturday. I’ve run twice since then (Sunday and Tuesday) and both times my shin caused me pain with every step. As it turns out, my worries were misplaced. My bruised shin didn’t bother me the slightest bit.

Shortly after 8 a.m. the runners gathered to listen to Jeff Riddle (the run’s coordinator) give instructions. Then we were off.

Run coordinator Jeff Riddle explains the rules

Runners listen to Jeff's instructions

The snow was tough. I started slowly, chit-chatting with others for the first mile or two. I finished my first loop in 43 minutes. By the second 4.05 mile loop (of seven) the snow was packed down a little bit, and that allowed me to run a little faster. My second loop was around 40 minutes, as was the third. I ran the fourth loop with Chris (who recently whooped me a the Siberian Express) and Matt (last year’s Riddle Run winner). They both stopped at the end of the lap with 16 miles total, as they had both planned to do.

I was still feeling very good and I was running a steady pace. There were two other guys with roughly the same time as me (though we weren’t running together as we chose to run the loops in opposite directions at times). I stopped at my car to grab a bite to eat at mile 8, 16, 20, & 24. I drank a lot of Gatorade throughout. It worked, as I never ran out of energy. I took an Endurolyte tablet each time I stopped in order to try to avoid the muscle cramping I experienced at Tecumseh. This also worked, as my muscles never cramped.

Each of the last two laps I walked up two of the hills. This was the only walking I did the entire time, and it probably only slowed me down by a minute or two.

At 24 miles Jeff told me I had the fastest time so far by a couple minutes. Most of the runners didn’t run all seven laps, they stopped early. There was a crowd of these runners gathered around a campfire near the finish line. They all began to cheer as I began the final lap. I continued the same steady pace I had been running all morning. Then came the surprise of the day… something that’s never happened in six previous marathons/ultra-marathons. I picked up the pace the last mile as I approached the finish. Not just a little, but a lot. In fact, my last mile was the fastest mile I ran all day. I still had some gas left in the tank.

I finished. I was the first one to do so. The crowed cheered as I crossed the “finish line” and pelted me with snowballs. This wasn’t really a race, it was more of a fun run, but Jeff declared me the winner. The first place male in the Riddle Run gets a traveling “trophy” (which it turns out is a roll of toilet paper signed by each previous winner).

Jeff awards Rob the 1st place travelling trophy

Jeff awards Rob the traveling “trophy”

After the run I changed clothes, ate a delicious cupcake, and warmed up by the campfire.

Jeff's wife baked delicious cupcakes for all registered runners

Jeff’s wife baked a cupcake for every runner

Post-run campfire

warming up by the campfire

Ken and his dog Cayenne finished about five minutes after me. Then Jason was another five minutes behind Ken.

Cayenne was one of two dogs to run the full 28.35 miles

Cayenne was one of (at least) two dogs to run the full 28.35 miles

Pat Mills was pelted with snoballs upon finishingPat Mills was pelted with snoballs upon finishing

Pat was the next finisher. He too, was pelted with snowballs.

Just behind Pat were Becky & Ellen, the first two women. They were running together. Becky crossed the line first in a photo finish.

Becky & Ellen were the 1st & 2nd women to finish

Becky kicks Ellen’s ass (just kidding)

Jeff awards Becky the 1st place travelling trophy

Jeff awards Becky the women’s traveling trophy

The women’s traveling trophy is a little stuffed buffalo. It’s nice, but it probably couldn’t be used for wiping in an emergency, like the men’s trophy. Well, at least not more than once.

It was a good time. The run was hard. The times were slow. My winning time was 4:56, the second slowest winning of the 10 Riddle Runs. I’m moving around now better than ever before after a run this long. I take that as another good sign. Now that I’ve survived the Riddle Run I took the plunge and finally registered for the Illinois Marathon. I’ve been planning to do it, I just hadn’t registered yet. Now I just need to avoid injury for 2.5 more months.

Interestingly, the Riddle Run winners were also awarded the chance to register for the 30 mile Clinton Lake Ultra in March, even though that race is already full. It’s a nice perk, but I’m probably going to pass on it. I’d love to race Clinton, but it’s two weeks before the Illinois Marathon, which is my primary objective for the first part of the year. I wonder if this award is transferable, and if so, how much I could get for it on eBay… Just kidding, Chris.

The Glen

As a child growing up in Danville I used to love to go to the nearby county and state parks with my grandparents, aunt Marcia, and brother Travis. We would go hiking and fishing for hours on end. Kickapoo, Kennekuk, and Forest Glen were my favorites. As an adult living in nearby Urbana I still visit these same parks, though I forego the hiking and fishing in favor of trail running and occasionally mountain biking.

This morning I went with a group of local trail runners over to Forest Glen county park southeast of Danville. We ran the backpacker trail, which is somewhere between 10 & 11 miles (there’s so much elevation change the GPS I was wearing did a poor job measuring the distance). I’ve run this trail twice before and every time I come away thinking this is one of the hardest trails in the area to run.

The first third of the trail is deceptively simple. The middle third becomes challenging. The final third is brutal. The latter half of the trail follows the Vermilion river bluffs and the trail traverses many hills that are steep and/or tall. This most difficult section comes right at the end when you’re already tired from all the previous hills.

A few of the runners brought their dogs out. I was half expecting pandemonium, but it worked out pretty well. I only tripped on a dog one time :)

The Elephant

(Simpsons episode 5F04)

Bart: Wow, I wish I had an elephant!
Lisa: You did, his name was Stampy, you loved him.
Bart: Oh yeah…

Apparently the circus is in town

I rode home from work last night on the same route I ride every night when I noticed an unusual smell near the University of Illinois Assembly Hall. I looked over to my right and there were two elephants being hosed down in the parking lot about 20 meters away from me. That explains the smell. It appears the circus has come to town.

Two elephants in the Assembly Hall parking lot

The Bitter Cold

Today was probably the coldest weather in which I have ever bicycled, though not the coldest I have ever felt while bicycling. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. It was -2˚ Fahrenheit when I left this morning for physical therapy (right shoulder) on the other side of town.

I am the proud owner what could possibly be the greatest invention of all time, Gore-Tex socks. When I wear these things over my regular socks my feet never get cold, no matter how cold or windy it is, and they stay very dry unless I happen to be wading in water for a significant duration of time. I was very sad when I discovered a couple of weeks ago that I misplaced one of my treasured Gore-Tex socks. Since that time I’ve had to get by simply wearing multiple layers of regular socks.

Today was a 3 sock pair day. My shoes would barely fit me and it didn’t even work. My toes were frozen by the time I arrived at my destination. It was then that I resolved to do whatever it took to find my missing Gore-Tex sock. When I got home I looked through all my drawers, behind the washer & dryer, under the bed, all to no avail. Finally, out of desperation, I searched the garage and I found the missing sock in the trunk of Iris (our car). It was still dirty from whenever I last wore it.

At one point during the day Melissa mentioned to me that the UIUC weather page listed the current weather conditions as “bitterly cold.” I could not have agreed more.

And apparently I’m not the only one. On the coldest of winter days, generally when the wind is blowing from the west, I’m joined at my east-facing office window by several small black and brown birds. They fly up to the 5th floor of my building and take shelter from the harsh winds. I don’t think they can see clearly through the tinted windows, though they are startled by sudden motion. If I approach very slowly I can often come within inches of them without them noticing my presence. I managed to snap a few pictures today.