Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Effing Ham at Effingham

It’s Christmas Eve, and what are we doing? We’re driving home from Ohio. Sue’s mom passed away in the early morning hours of December 20, and her funeral was yesterday. We’ve been in Ohio since December 9. It’s been a long few weeks—yet much, much too short, too. . . . We’re just tired.

Tired and dazed. It will be so good to be home again, sleep in our own bed, be reunited with our kitties, and see if the world won’t start spinning on its axis again at some point. One thing’s for sure: 2020 will be an unusual year.

Over the many years we’ve driven to Ohio to visit Sue’s people, we’ve always had to drive through Effingham, Illinois. In recent years, it’s had so much highway construction, it’s been a real pain. All those lanes of traffic, merging interstates, exit and entrance ramps, and people driving like idiots. Many of them are, as Sue calls them, Ill-annoying drivers.

Time was, Effingham was a place where we’d plan to stop, knowing there were so many options for gas and fast food. But for years, now, it’s a place, like Indianapolis, that we just want to get through. We’ll stop almost anywhere before or after it, but our goal for a long time has been to slip through this gantlet of crazy traffic as efficiently as possible. And the monstrously gigantic, tacky roadside cross is not something we particularly like to see. I’m a Christian, but really—though I’m sure it was erected with all good intentions, it makes me cringe. And as a sign of Effingham’s impending traffic, it’s rather ominous: “oh boy, here we go.”

So, Effingham. We’ve taken to calling it “effing, effing, Effingham.” As in, “seventeen miles to effing, effing, Effingham—do you wanna stop and get gas before it, or after?”

(The image above is a screen capture from Google street view.)

But tonight, we made an exception. I think we’ve set a land speed record, this trip, returning from Ohio. We simply haven’t stopped much at all. But around Terre Haute, we realized we were getting peckish, also a little slap-happy. It occurred to us we wanted comfort food, home cookin’—breakfast. And we knew there’s a Denny’s in Effingham. You can always count on Denny’s, huh?

Slap-happy plus peckish equals hilarity; from Terre Haute to central Illinois, it became our mantra: Hey, let’s get some effing ham at Effingham!

And that’s just what we did.

It totally hit the spot, and it tickled us, too. I had to post about it on Facebook.

And the coffee was completely welcome. And the people who work at places like this, on Christmas Eve, serving people like us, are doing the work of God. Our gratitude knows no bounds. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

. . . So very looking forward to getting home.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Mrs. Ferber’s Spice Cookies

It’s Advent and time for a Christmas cookie recipe! This is an all-time favorite of Sue’s family, and the recipe comes from Sue’s mom. It’s one of those cookies you can’t have Christmas without.

Mrs. F is currently in a rehab facility after recently falling in her assisted living apartment. So this year, since we’re in Ohio to be with her, I’m baking these cookies in Mrs. Ferber’s own kitchen.

At some point, after we get back to Missouri, I’ll be shipping these and other cookies to family and friends on my cookie gift list.

Note that these will be quite soft when you take them out of the oven. They will become crisp and firm when they cool. These are best when they are both crunchy and slightly chewy. If they turn out slightly too crispy, store them in a sealed tin with half an apple wrapped in some wax paper—that’ll fix the texture.

You will probably want to double this recipe, because everyone will want some.

3/4 cup shortening
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses (such as Brer Rabbit)
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 tsp. ground cloves
3/4 tsp. dried, ground ginger

Mix dough and chill. Roll it into balls the size of walnuts. Dip in a bowl of granulated sugar and place 2 inches apart on a greased (or parchment-lined) cookie sheet. Bake at 375°F for about 8 minutes. Makes about 60 cookies.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Berardi’s Restaurant, Huron, Ohio

One of my favorite restaurants anywhere is Berardi’s Restaurant in Huron, Ohio, just about a fifteen-minutes’ drive north from where Sue grew up. It’s a restaurant with a long history in northern Ohio. It started in 1942 as a French fry stand at Sandusky’s world-famous amusement park, Cedar Point. In 1978, the park stopped allowing independent food concessionaires on its property, so Berardi’s opened a sit-down restaurant in nearby Huron in 1979. (There is another Berardi’s Restaurant in Sandusky, which opened in 1978; it has a slightly different, more Italian-focused menu.) Both are run by third and/or fourth-generation members of the Berardi family. The service is exceptional, even when it’s busy.

Although what I’m about to crow about focuses on traditional and ethnic dishes, I should point out that Berardi’s in Huron keeps it fresh by offering a variety of newer, healthier dishes, like a quinoa breakfast, gluten-free options, fruit and nut salad, grilled salmon and asparagus salad, chicken or tuna salad fruit plates, breakfast options with lots of veggies, and lots more.

I’ve been visiting with Sue’s family in northern Ohio since 1994, and it wasn’t until May 9, 2013, that I finally got to have a meal at Berardi’s. We’d been driving past the place for ages, and I’d always wondered what it was like in there. Hmm. Look at all those cars in the parking lot; that place must be good! One afternoon, when we were sitting around wondering what to do for a meal, I said, “How about that place up by Cornell’s—Berardi’s, or whatever?” They were like, “Oh, yeah. We could go there.” Then they were surprised: “Wait, you’ve never been there? We’ve never taken you to Berardi’s???”

I think Sue’s family had somehow forgotten it existed. Maybe they thought it was too snooty (Sue’s dad had an aversion to cloth-napkin, “fancy” places), or too pricey? . . . But it really isn’t. And it’s got something for everyone. Anyhow, we went; we were all delighted; and so we’ve been going back since then. It’s become a favorite place for the whole family to get together. Whether for breakfast, lunch, or supper, Sue and I try to find a way to dine there at least once per trip.

Indeed, Sue’s family came to realize that Berardi’s is one of my “happy places.” One year when we were in Ohio for my birthday, they conspired to surprise me with a trip to Berardi’s. (I could tell from a mile away that’s where we were heading, but I played along. Surprise! Sue’s mom and dad were so pleased to see me happy! Yayyy! Ber-aaarrrrr-di’s!!)

There are so many interesting dishes at Berardi’s. It’s basically a homestyle cooking restaurant—Americana—but it’s certainly different than what a similar restaurant here in Missouri would offer.

  • There’s a lot more seafood (which makes me ponder that many Missourians, indeed, are skeptical of seafood, unless it’s fried catfish). Especially, being less than a mile south of the Lake Erie shore, Berardi’s proudly offers the tasty fresh yellow perch and walleye so famous from that body of water.
  • There are a lot of Italian dishes, served matter-of-factly, because the ethnic Italian Berardis are surrounded by plenty of other Italian-derived people in the area, so this is just good home-cookin’, not “ethnic” food from a “foreign land,” like it is so often in Missouri. (In Missouri, we serve southern food and barbecue, like cornmeal-breaded fried catfish and BBQ porksteaks, as if it were normal food that everyone eats everywhere.)
  • Likewise, there are a lot of eastern European dishes that we rarely see here in Missouri. Sauerkraut balls, pierogis, and haluski (cabbage and noodles with kielbasa), chief among them. You may also encounter specials like stuffed bell peppers and cabbage rolls.
  • Of the straight-up Americana dishes, I have to note that liver and onions is on the menu; also a tuna melt, a “mile-high meatloaf,” and an open-faced roast beef and gravy sandwich. The latter two were big favorites of Sue’s dad. These old-fashioned blue-plate diner dishes have pretty much disappeared from around here in Missouri.
  • Berardi’s is also famous for its homemade pies and cookies. Lots of people get these to go; they beckon to you from a cold case near the entryway.

I won’t go into the whole menu; you can look that up online. But I do want to mention a few favorite dishes—especially things we can’t get around here in Missouri.

  • The famous Berardi’s French fries. “Thick, hand cut, made to order.” Many people enjoy these with a bit of malt vinegar, but good-ol’ ketchup is also perfect. These are exactly the same as they were made at Cedar Point back in the day. Sue says they taste exactly the same. A blast from the past! The only difference is that now they’re served on plates instead of in a paper cone like they did at Cedar Point.
  • Sauerkraut balls. “Hand breaded and stuffed with cream cheese, sauerkraut, and sausage. Served with bistro sauce.” We here in Missouri are missing out on a beautiful thing by not having sauerkraut balls. These are so good, they’re available everywhere in northern Ohio. Like, at bars. Even at goofy golf places, soft-serve ice cream stands, and bowling alleys. You hear that, German-heritage Missourians? Sauerkraut balls are so delicious, they’re even served at bowling alleys. At bow-ling-al-leys!. Naturally, the ones at Berardi’s are in a higher class, having been made fresh instead of prepackaged frozen things supplied by a food service.
  • Potato knoephle and seafood bisque. These soups are always on the menu, and both are perfect. The knoephle (pronounced NEFF-luh, though they’ll know what you mean if you say NIP-fluh, NOP-fluh, K’nop-flee, K’neff-lee, or any other thing that sounds close) is a hearty, chicken-broth-based soup with potatoes, dumplings, and onions. The seafood bisque is creamy and velvety, with clams, shrimp, and lobster. They keep containers of these soups in a refrigerator next to the cash register, because so many people pick them up to go.
  • Lake Erie yellow perch and Lake Erie walleye. Available as dinners or in sandwiches. Sue’s mom, who grew up on an island in Lake Erie, always gets the perch and relishes every single bite. Berardi’s fries it to perfection and serves it, as nature intended, with French fries and coleslaw.
  • Pierogies. I’ll bet many Missourians have never heard of these. Pierogies (peer-OH-ghees) are like big, mild raviolis, stuffed with mashed potato and cheddar cheese. They’re boiled in water until cooked, then they are sautéed in butter and grilled onions and served with kielbasa and sour cream. Berardi’s serves them with a side of applesauce. It’s sort of like potato pancakes. Look for pierogies in the freezer section of supermarkets, or find recipes online. There are many traditional stuffings, including prunes, apples, cabbage, ham, sausage, bacon, sauerkraut, and more.
  • Cabbage and noodles (haluski). My favorite! “Homemade cabbage and [egg] noodles topped with kielbasa and sour cream. Served with applesauce.” . . . And a piece of garlic toast. I honestly don’t want to know how much butter these are swimming in—I’ve seen traditional recipes online, and it frightens me. When I make it at home, I halve the amount of oil, and then use half olive oil and half butter. But eating at Berardi’s is a treat, and I relish every bite—which, given the ample serving, takes me about halfway through the dish. The rest of the meal comprises lunch the next day! It’s simple, hearty home cooking. So good!

While I’m at it, I should mention the joys of breakfast at Berardi’s. Until recently, we have never been there for breakfast, since we have always had breakfast made in the kitchen of Sue’s mother. (Did I mention how much she loves the Lake Erie yellow perch?)

But since she has moved into an assisted living place, Sue and I have occasionally gotten breakfast at Berardi’s. So a few comments are in order.

  • First, you can order a wide variety of traditional breakfast foods—the old-fashioned heavy favorites such as sausage gravy on biscuits, the usual variety of steak and eggs, omelets, pancakes, sausage, bacon, homefries, corned beef hash, and even creamed chipped beef on toast.
  • But there are a variety of newer, fresher, healthier ideas: bran muffins, an “oatmeal breakfast” with a choice of topping, fresh fruit, and a bran muffin,” “fresh fruit, yogurt, and muffin,” and quinoa patties. And here’s a nice idea: a breakfast called “the uno,” which has one of each: a single pancake or piece of French toast, a single egg cooked to order, and a single piece of bacon or sausage. Along the same lines, there’s also the “1-1-1,” where you get a single egg, a single piece of bacon or sausage link, and a single slice of toast and homefries. I love the idea of scaling down the quantity of the food while keeping the variety!
  • If you visit Berardi’s for breakfast in the fall and early winter—during “pumpkin-spice-everything” season—I encourage you to get the pumpkin spice pancakes, because they’re the bomb! Tender, tasty, and buttery, “here for a limited time only.”
  • Finally, the coffee at Berardi’s is organic and fair-trade.

What’s not to like about this place? I hope that if you ever find yourself in northern Ohio, that you make it a point to eat at one of the Berardi’s restaurants. I know you’ll love it!

Berardi’s Restaurant
218 Cleveland Rd. East
Huron, Ohio 44839

Full disclosure: The owners of Berardi’s in Huron are personal friends of Sue’s niece, but though I’ve met them a few times and told them how much I adore their restaurant, I certainly don’t receive or expect personal favors from them. In their business, they know tons of people, and I’m sure I’m just another fan.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Noninsects of 2019

If you don’t like arthropods (insects and spiders and such), get ready to rejoice, because once this post is done, I’ll turn to other subjects. Meanwhile, this is the one that’ll give you the heebie-jeebies for sure. After several posts highlighting the various insects I photographed in 2019, I’m doing a post on non-insect arthropods.

As you might remember, one of the key identifying features of insects is their number of legs: six. So if you see something that looks like an insect and it doesn’t have six legs, then it’s probably not an insect. A millipede is a prime example, because it has not just six legs, but a million.

Just kidding. It’s not really a million legs; it’s usually more like 80 to 100 or so. Interesting fact: they have two pairs of legs for each body segment, not counting the head and tail (which have no legs), and the first three body segments (which have only one pair of legs per segment). As the millipede grows and molts, it adds new body segments. These humble arthropods eat humble fare: lichens, maybe, and decaying vegetation. At least some types of millipedes (usually the ones with bright warning colors) can secrete toxic substances (including cyanide) if they feel threatened. But unless you’re planning on eating one (not recommended), why would anyone threaten a millipede?

Anyway, we found this cute little millipede walking around on our front porch steps in the late afternoon sunshine on March 13; it was a fairly warm evening. It was only about 1¼ inches long. The warming temperatures must have roused it out of its winter torpor.

The next two are spiders. The first is an oddball called a featherlegged orbweaver.

We get these around our yard each year, and I took this photo on June 5. Why do I call it an oddball? Well, first, it just looks odd. The forelegs are typically held straight out in front of the body, though sometimes they hold their forelegs foreword in a Y shape. Either way, they look rather peculiar.

By the way, in the photo above, she is facing downward, her forelegs stretched out straight in front of her, and above her abdomen is one of her egg cases, which is shaped something like a whelk shell. These spiders create a line of these spindle-shaped egg cases, which look a lot like their abdomens, then pose along the line, blending in.

But there’s more. Although they’re an orbweaver (a weaver of orb-shaped webs), they’re not true orbweavers (a member of the Araneidae or typical orbweavers, the family of spiders that build orb webs). Featherlegged orbweavers instead belong to a family of spiders called cribellates, or cribillate orbweavers (Uloboridae), because they possess an unusual sieve-like (perforated) plate called a cribellum, which is positioned at the place where silk exits the spider’s body. This cribellum causes the silk to become hackled—to have woolly fuzzy extensions along its length, instead of being a smooth-sided silky strand. Because the silk is so cottony, it easily snags the legs and other pointy, jagged body parts of insects. They stick to it the way rough dry fingertips snag on polyester fabric.

In fact, this cribellate silk is so good at snagging insects, it replaces the sticky goo that other spiders have on their webs. Also, cribellate spiders have such success with their hackled threads that they do not even have venom; they don’t need it. Not having any venom is a true oddity for a spider. Instead of injecting venom into the prey, they regurgitate digestive juices onto the bound prey, then lap up the liquefying meaty juices. It’s sort of how flies burp up digestive fluids onto their foods, then sop up the goodies.

The other spider I photographed (above) was a longjawed orbweaver, genus Tetragnatha, in family Tetragnathidae. These are also called “stretch spiders,” for the way they rest. Holding the two pairs of forelegs straight forward, and the two pairs of hind legs straight backward, they—with their elongated, narrow bodies—look like little twigs. The “longjawed” part of their name refers to their huge chelicerae. Best not to imagine yourself as a mayfly when you contemplate the hunting of longjawed orbweavers.

They are fascinating spiders that are associated with boat docks and the vegetation around lakes and streams. This longjawed orbweaver built its web among the big tropical plants we keep along the retaining wall of our driveway.

Finally, the other noninsects I photographed were these water springtails (above). Long considered insects, because they have six legs, springtails as a group are now classified separately from insects. They may have six legs, but they aren’t related to insects. I photographed these floating on a pond on a relatively warm day at MDC headquarters, March 23.

Springtails are fascinating! There are all kinds of interesting facts about them, including why they are not considered insects. Here’s another cool fact: water springtails (this species), for instance, can see polarized light—an adaptation for living near water! Do look at my writeup on water springtails on the MDC field guide.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

More Insects of 2019

I’m continuing my little series on insects I photographed this year. Although in previous posts I grouped them by order, in this post, it’s kind of a grab-bag of miscellaneous types of insects.

Several teeny-tiny baby mantids were hanging around the backyard on May 30. I'm pretty sure these were the ubiquitous, nonnative Chinese mantises. They must have just hatched, which explains why they were still so near each other. Ravenous little buggers, they have to disperse quickly, or they’ll try to prey on each other. When people say it’s a “dog-eat-dog world,” they really mean it’s a “mantis-eat-mantis world.”

On June 6, a mayfly subimago (or “dun,” if you’re into flyfishing) was resting on our screen door. Mayflies are the only insects that molt once more after gaining wings. You can tell it’s a subimago (subadult) because its wings are whitish or cloudy looking.

I was on a roll in June! Here’s a crane fly that was resting on our aluminum front storm doors. See those weird little dealy-bobbers extending out from the body behind where the wings are attached? Those are called halteres, and they are a feature of true flies. True flies have only one pair of wings, right? Well, the second pair was modified into these halteres. Apparently, they function like little gyroscopes and help the fly to navigate. This would be especially useful if you’re, say, a house fly, zipping around at a million miles per hour.

You might also notice a little point at the abdomen tip. Fear not—this is only an ovipositor, not a stinger. This harmless, harmless, harmless female crane fly uses it as an egg depositor. Adult crane flies don’t have mouthparts that function, so they can’t bite.

In late June, I saw a handful of scenes like these on the undersides of some of the leaves on our black oak tree. Tiny blue-black spheres, many with holes in them, with several itty-bitty wasps scampering around nearby. This one had me confused, and I’m still not sure what’s going on. But here’s what I think:

The spheres are eggs from some kind of insect species. Maybe a hemipteran? And the “flies” are little parasitic wasps, Telenomus-somethings, perhaps the parents guarding the parasitized eggs, or (I think more likely) perhaps they are newly hatched adult Telenomus fresh from emerging from the eggs of their host species. They had long, fast-moving antennae—something I associate with parasitic insects, since they’re constantly trying to find suitable hosts as the clock is ticking on their own lifespans.

Above is another insect we saw at the end of June, at La Plata. It’s a moth fly, probably Clogmia albipunctata. It’s indeed an actual fly, a true fly, in the same order as houseflies, mosquitoes, horse flies, crane flies, and so on. But this nifty little fuzzy fly has scales on its wings, which makes it look a lot like a moth. So, “moth fly.” They are, alas, associated with kinda skanky wet areas, since their wormlike larvae are famous for growing up in dirty sink traps and other wet places with lots of decaying organic material. This is why you often see moth flies hanging around near sinks and bathtubs. But you have to admire these furry little fuzz muffins of flight.

Finally, a couple of mantises. These are representatives of Missouri’s two most common species. The one on top is native, the Carolina mantis, and the one below it is the Chinese mantis, a nonnative/exotic/introduced species (technically, it’s invasive, though hey, it’s had about a century of concerted, purposeful introduction as a so-called agricultural pest-control species, so it’s pretty late to be trying to put this genie back in the bottle).

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The True Bugs of 2019

Continuing my little series sharing some of the insects I photographed this year, grouping them by order (or whatever, as the case may be). In this case, yeah, order: Hemiptera, the true bugs.

First, a fascinating species that I don’t think we have here in Missouri: the woolly alder aphid; Prociphilus tessellatus. I saw these at a reclaimed wetlands in Virginia on June 12. There are a ton of videos about these weird aphids. I shared links to four of these videos in the preceding sentence. If you click on any or all of them, you’ll enjoy. Incredibly interesting behavior. In my one photo, note the attending ant.

Also, that same day in Virginia, at the same community wetlands, I found a colony of dogwood spittlebugs (Clastoptera proteus) drinking and hopping around on a bunch of native viburnums (I’m pretty sure that’s what those shrubs were). These were the adult spittlebugs, so they were no longer living in a mass of spittle. Instead, they were having a grand time drinking sap and hopping around in the sunshine on the leaves of an entire colony of acceptable food plants. There were, of course, plenty of birds hanging around, too, which no doubt abruptly ended the fun for many, many of these spittlebugs. Because this, my friends, is what bird food looks like.

About a month later, we noticed several colorful leafhoppers on our baby sapodilla tree. (We grew our little tropical sapodilla from a seed within a fruit we bought at Robert Is Here!)

One of the most memorable things I read about leafhoppers this year was someone likened them to speedboats. And yes, they do look like speedboats! Sleek and slender, with spiffy colors and markings—wow! The only thing is, you have to look carefully at them to appreciate them, because they’re tiny.

Did you know that leafhoppers cover themselves with wax? Sometimes you can see a little white oval spot on the second half of their bodies, which is kind of a reservoir of waxy-stuff. They use their little comblike serrations on their legs to wipe the waxy stuff over their bodies. The wax helps to repel water, and maybe even more importantly, it helps repel the sticky excretions that come out of their friends, relatives, and neighbors after they feed so heavily on sweet plant sap.

This particular miniature speedboat is Graphocephala versuta. You could call it the “cunning sharpshooter,” because versutus is Latin for “cunning” and Graphocephala members are in a leafhopper subfamily called sharpshooters.

One of my projects this year was adding to the true bugs on MDC’s online field guide. You can see them all here.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Beetles of 2019

Simply sharing some more of the insects I photographed this year, grouping them by order (or whatever, as the case may be). In this case, order: Coleoptera, the beetles.

I found this elm borer (Saperda tridentata) resting on our front door the morning of May 30. It had no doubt been attracted to our porch light during the previous evening. This is one of the insects that got me in the habit of inspecting the wall and door under the porch light in the mornings!

This species is one of the many longhorn beetles (that’s a family), and it’s in a subfamily called the “flat-faced longhorns.” I think it’s spiffy looking. It lays eggs in cracks of the bark of stressed elm trees, and the larvae feed under the bark, creating squiggly galleries as they go. It can transmit the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease, but it’s not the main vector. Instead, three species of elm bark beetles are the primary vectors; they’re in the weevil family of beetles. We do have some elms in our neighborhood, but since the venerable old American elm that used to stand in front of my mom’s ancestral home was cut down (for no good reason), all that’s left are Siberian elms (“piss elms”) that are past their prime, so pfft, who cares, let the beetles have them, eh?

Seeing that nifty-looking elm borer inspired me to work outside on the patio that morning, keeping my eyes open, and this plain little ol’ click beetle came and visited me. Click beetles are in family Elateridae; I think this one is some kind of Melanotus species, but good lord there are a lot that all look alike!

Click beetles are the ones that, when harassed or worried, play dead. They lay on their backs, legs tucked in, then suddenly: Click! In a split second, they bend their abdomen/thorax segments, making an audible clicking sound, and the sudden click flips them away—somewhere, anywhere away—from the perceived danger.

Click beetle playing dead, just like an opossum, huh?

Then there was the very, very cool Hercules beetle I saw in Virginia on June 10.

We were walking along a strip mall and saw a few women making OHMYGOD gestures; this scarab beetle is very large, and the antlerlike extensions of the exoskeleton make them look formidable. When I picked it up (yeah, I picked it up, thinking “Ah, poor beetle, what are you doing in this lame strip mall place? You need to be in the woods!”), I held it by its sides, and it pressed hard against my fingers with its legs. Very, very strong beetle. What an impressive insect. I set it free in by bro’s backyard, which has a little wooded area near it.

Interesting (and sad) fact about the eastern Hercules beetle: they are declining and may soon be declared threatened: they need certain types of large hardwood trees to complete their life cycle, and ash trees are very important. Now that ash trees throughout North America are threatened by the emerald ash borer, the amazing, fantastic, proud, humble eastern Hercules beetle may also disappear from our continent.

On June 5, I photographed a flea beetle and a darkling beetle in our yard near our house.

The flea beetle was pretty attractive; I think it is species Disonycha procera. This is one of the many colorful and attractive leaf beetles.

The darkling beetle (below) (a Tenebrionid--again, that’s a family of beetles) was one of a bazillion that crawled out of the landscaping mulch along the front of our house one morning when I watered it really well. They all walked up the side of our white-painted house, so they were especially noticeable. They have such dark bodies; as if they were made out of black rubber. There are lots of species of darkling beetles that look more or less the same; I think this is species Alaetrinus minimus.

Then there was a longhorned beetle on our back porch screen on June 20:

This (above) is Acanthoderes quadrigibba, whose name (I figured out) can be translated as the four-humped flat-faced longhorn. There is no common name, even though these beetles aren’t especially uncommon. The larvae feed on rotten wood, so they’re not considered pests.

The dogbane beetle (above) has to be of one of North America’s most beautiful beetles! Another member of the leaf beetle group. We saw this handsome insect resting on a window of the Amtrak station at La Plata, the way we went there to watch trains. See what happens? You embark on your day thinking you’re going to see A, B, and C, and instead (or in addition) you get M, N, and O.

The bonus beetle doesn’t look much like a beetle at all! It looks more like a lizard:

But let’s not forget that most of a beetle’s life is spent looking like a grub, or . . . a teeny tiny lizard. So this is an immature multicolored Asian lady beetle. These are the ladybugs that crawl into little cracks and get into your home in autumn, then buzz around your light fixtures for weeks afterward, and leave squiggly lines of poop on your walls and curtains. Yes, they are from Asia. Yes, they are a nuisance. Many people consider them invasive, but I think it’s still legal to import them and set them loose supposedly to fight against crop pests.

. . . Um, right.

More arthropod pictures soon!

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Moths of 2019

Going through my pictures from La Plata, I fell in love again with an insect we saw there, a dogbane beetle. It was resting on a shaded, north-facing window, but it was shining beautifully in rich rainbow colors. And I realized, “Hey, I’ve met a lot of new insects this year.” Maybe you’d like to meet them too?

Although I’ve taken loads of “bug pictures” this year (I'm still taking plenty more), I’m only going to do the highlights. But because there are so many, I’ll present them in five separate posts: moths, beetles, true bugs, and a collection of flies, mantids, and others as a sort of “miscellaneous insects” category. I’ll finish with spiders and other noninsects. Ready? Let’s go!

This here is a boxwood leaftier (Galasa nigrinodis)—a type of pyralid moth—that was perched on the bathroom wall one morning in mid-April. It seemed very early in the year to be seeing a moth; Bugguide says they usually fly June through September. I’m pretty sure it must’ve come indoors as a pupa on a potted plant we brought inside for the winter. We have a box bush in the backyard, which must have provided its food last year before it pupated accidentally in some plant we ended up bringing inside. Isn’t it fascinating how they stand, like they’re doing a pushup? I was impressed by the beauty of its maroon and orange iridescence.


The next two are geometrid moths—the name means “earth measurer” and it refers to the caterpillars, which most people would call “inchworms.” As adults, they’re distinctive moths, typically posing with wings open and flattened out to the sides. The colors and patterns on fore wings and hind wings usually run seamlessly onto one another. If you’re thinking of learning more about moths, geometrids are a good place to start—because many of them are so pretty.

The first day of June, this geometrid, called the bent-line carpet (Costaconvexa centrostrigaria), was perched on our front doorsteps. Wow! It pays to look closely at insects, doesn’t it! It’s called a “carpet,” apparently, because the ornate patterns make it look like an oriental rug. As a caterpillar, this moth eats various species of knotweeds and smartweeds. I predict this species will be extra common in our area, given the flooding this year—we have a bumper crop of smartweeds locally, about everywhere the floodwaters had been a few months ago.

A few nights later (June 3), a juniper-twig geometer (Patalene olyzonaria) came to our front porch light. As the name suggests, the caterpillars of this species eat juniper foliage. The caterpillar, true to the typical geometrid pattern, looks JUST like a juniper twig—tan, with a series of little X markings—and when it stiffens and stands still at an angle to the twig it’s resting on, you’d have little luck seeing it. I truly admire how the adult moth looks like a dead leaf, right down to the kind of wavy texture to the wings. I'm grateful this insect let me photograph it.


I know you’ve seen plume moths before—probably on a screen window or the side of your house in the morning. You’ve probably wondered what they are. They always hold their wings folded tight and out to the side, so they look like a T. It’s easy to recognize them as plume moths (family), but narrowing them to species is much more tricky.

I’m confident that this species is the morning-glory plume moth (Emmelina monodactyla). First, it’s a common and widespread plume moth species. Second, its caterpillars eat plants in the morning glory family, including field bindweed, a plant we struggle with in (so far, only in) one sector of our yard. Also, it superficially matches the pictures in Bugguide. (Bugguide, my guide!)


On August 3, we enjoyed a few hours hanging out at Hermann’s Stone Hill Winery. We were getting ready to leave, and we saw this moth flying around; it finally lit in an oak tree near the parking lot. It’s not a great picture, because I was holding the camera way up above my head and zooming . . . and hoping for something decent. This is an imperial moth (Eacles imperialis), one of the lovely, majestic giant silkworm (or royal) moths. Others in the same group are luna moths, Polyphemus and cecropia moths, royal walnut moth, rosy maple moth, etc. Big, furry, gorgeous animals.


Working on field guide entries about moths and insects recently has taught me a lot about creatures almost no one would give a second thought to. And guess what: learning just a little about them makes them incredibly fascinating. This species is in the crambid snout moth family (used to be grouped with the pyralids, like the boxwood leaftier above). Both have mouthparts that tend to be pointed forward, making it look like they have snouts.

Most crambids are tiny and not colorful. Many curl their wings around the body, so they look like little sticks. Sod webworms are a classic example. Even though they’re not colorful, you still have to look at wing patterns to identify them. This species, the elegant grass-veneer (Microcrambus elegans) has a pattern that looks like a frowny Halloween mask! So it’s rather easy to ID, even from a distance. This moth has has a wingspan of only about ½ inch. The larvae feed on grasses. You almost certainly have some of these trapped in your lamp covers, inside or out. (One of my insect superheroes, Eric Eaton, addressed indoor bug safaris in a recent wintertime blog post. I love it!!!!)

Hashtag "I love insects." Hashtag "I wish other people could see how beautiful and interesting they are."

Next, I'll share some nifty beetles!

Thursday, August 22, 2019

More about La Plata and Trains

Here are a few more little fun facts about La Plata, which is indeed pronounced “luh-PLAY-tuh.” First, it’s an easy drive north from Columbia on Highway 63, and although I was born, grew up, and went to college in Columbia, I don’t think I ever visited La Plata. Seems like we always explored south, west, or east, and not much north.

1. A famous La Plata native was Lester Dent, who wrote 159 Doc Savage pulp-fiction novels under the pen name Kenneth Robeson. He wrote loads of other novels—crimes and mysteries—as well. He was well-traveled and an adventurer.

2. The Santa Fe Espresso restaurant in downtown La Plata was pretty nice. We were there in the middle of the afternoon and were the only customers. We found it quite pleasant, and we were glad we stopped in for our lunch.

3. The town square has a nice park in the middle of it, with a children’s playground and a lovely, well-maintained community shelterhouse, with loads of picnic tables.

4. At the end of August is the Annual La Plata Soybean Festival, with one of my favorite Missouri bands, Keota. It sure looks like a fun event, including a “Hometown Hootenanny,” a Queen Soya, a baby show and kiddie parade, ice cream and homemade pie, a Soybean Festival Parade, Soybean Olympics, Cake Walk, and—always better to watch than to participate in—a hotdog eating contest. We won’t be able to go this year, but I’m putting in on my calendar for next year.

5. Did you know that the horns of different railroad lines sound slightly different chords? If you’re a musician, you can have fun testing your ears as you learn to distinguish the different tunings.

First, a basic introduction to train horns, and how they work.

A fun collection of different train horns, including many vintage ones, with plenty of sound files.

Info on the very popular “K horns,” again with plenty of sound files.

Also, using long and short blasts of the horn, locomotives can communicate with anyone in earshot in using something like Morse code. Now that they have radios, the many kinds of signals used in the past are rarely used today. But here’s one key to the various signals.

6. Finally, for fun, and to get it hopelessly stuck in your head, here are two versions of Johnny Mercer’s “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.” One with Judy Garland, from the 1946 film “The Harvey Girls,” and the other performed by composer Johnny Mercer himself, with Jo Stafford, the Pied Pipers, and Paul Weston & His Orchestra (1944).

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

You Say To-MAY-tuh, We Say La PLAY-tuh

Sue and I had been working up to a day trip to La Plata, Missouri, for months—Sue longer, because she’s the one who discovered the Virtual Railfan’s La Plata webcam this spring, when it came up as a suggestion while she was watching some other video.

Just in case you haven’t heard of Virtual Railfan, here’s the deal: it’s a group of people (with a YouTube channel) who are all about watching trains: “Virtual Railfan is the premiere provider for live train cams all over the United States [plus Revelstoke, B.C., Canada] providing live views from some of the most iconic railroading spots on earth.” They have webcams in 21 locations, and La Plata is one. Here's the camera that faces east:

Here's the view west . . .

And here's the view east . . .

The VR folks work with the different railroad companies and set up live webcams at various places—usually stations or crossings where there’s a pretty large amount of train traffic each day. And the webcams let us witness things like the sounds of far-off train horns, the sight and sound of railroad crossing gates, a widening glare of headlights (if it’s night), and then the thunderous succession of engines and cars roaring by. Like this.

In many places, there are two webcams set up, so you can view both directions of the rail line. You can “rewind” the video back for 12 hours, to see what you’ve missed, or just to see a train, if you don’t want to wait for the next one to arrive. Also, live commenting is allowed, but it is moderated effectively, so it’s actually a pleasant experience. Like, you could let your kids watch it. The chitchat reveals actual camaraderie.

So why La Plata? La Plata’s a small town in northern Missouri with a population of 1,366.

You’d think there’d be a Virtual Railfan webcam set up here in Jeff City, with our attractive Amtrak station in the historic Union Hotel, at the Jefferson Landing State Historic Site, with the Missouri State Capitol in the background. Seems like we’re always hearing train horns!

But apparently, La Plata gets much more train traffic. While Jeff City is on the Union Pacific line and has the Missouri River Runner Amtrak lines, little ol’ La Plata averages between 50 and 70 BNSF trains every 24 hours, plus Amtrak’s Southwest Chief comes by twice a day. And although BNSF owns the line, Union Pacific (BNSF’s main competitor) has trackage rights and often runs about 6 of its trains through each day, too. So although at times it might seem about as interesting as watching paint dry, it’s actually rather entertaining—with the messaging, it’s sort of like waiting for a train with somebody. And at any given time in an evening, there may easily be some 500 to 1,000 people watching.

So, yes, La Plata’s history is tied with the railroad. The WPA’s Missouri: A Guide to the Show Me State (1941) offers a snapshot of 1930s Missouri. It noted that La Plata had a population of 1,421 and was positioned “at the junction of the Wabash and Santa Fe railroads.”

In the town’s early days, it carried both the Wabash line (which later became the Norfolk Southern, which today doesn’t go through the town), AND the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (ATSF, or “Santa Fe” for short). The ATSF ran through La Plata as it made a beeline from Chicago to Kansas City (bypassing St. Louis). The ATSF later merged with the Burlington Northern to became BNSF, and that’s the line that carries so much freight (both container and bulk cargo such as grains) now.

La Plata cherishes its railroading history. A motel in town, called the Depot Inn, has indoor and outdoor displays of railroad memorabilia and amounts to a small railroad museum. It is absolutely worth seeing, even if you don’t intend to stay the night.

And of course, we spent some time at the La Plata railroad station itself—after watching La Plata vicariously through a webcam, it was fun to see it in real life. The train station is definitely a historic structure, and it’s undergoing some restoration.

The current station is Art Deco style and dates back to a major remodel after a fire in 1945. In the late 1990s, people started working to renew the station: coalitions of town boosters and preservationists, railroad clubs, railroad restoration foundations. and other nonprofits. Money has come from grants, from a U.S. Department of Transportation matching-funds program, and even some money from the Missouri legislature—plus, of course, volunteer work and private donations. The American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) continues to work to find grants, organize fundraisers, and so on, to maintain the historic station.

So if you look at the La Plata webcams these days, you’ll probably see workers improving the walkways, railings, and other facilities at the station. They’re doing a nice job!

The station is closed most of the time, and although they don’t sell tickets there, a caretaker is at the station every day to open its doors and offer customer service and information during Amtrak train times. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief has thirty-two stops, including one at little ol’ La Plata, Missouri, as it runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. Judging from the live chat comments, I guess there are railfans who are especially interested in watching Amtrak trains.

So, we had a fun time snooping around the (closed) station, waiting for and seeing several trains go by, and driving around the town. We had lunch at the Santa Fe Espresso restaurant in downtown La Plata. After another visit to the station, we looked at the Depot Inn museum and then walked over the Brown Street bridge that crosses over the train tracks east of the station. No, there’s no decent sidewalk or even shoulder for pedestrians to be safe on that bridge, but on the baking hot Saturday afternoon there was hardly anyone on the roads, so we got our pictures in relative safety. Don’t tell anyone.

I also got a video of that. (You’re welcome!)

More on our La Plata excursion soon. Did I mention that Sue was really excited to see the La Plata railroad station in real life?