Get your tickets now for the 19th Annual Sourland Mountain Festival, on July 13th, before they're gone!

I started this essay in late April when dandelions were in bloom and I was struck by their beauty as though I had never seen them before.  I realized that there are a lot of plants and animals that are quite beautiful but I scarcely see them because they are common.  Since I write a monthly essay about seeing the plants and animals of the Sourlands I thought I should write about these common but beautiful plants and animals.  I found that the trick to seeing these things is to look closely, bend down and examine at close range a plant that I usually discount.  That doesn’t work very well with animals, but I found that I could look at them with binoculars or photograph them with a telephoto lens and admire their beauty on my computer screen. There is a story about a man who had never looked at any bird through binoculars, and when he finally saw a blue jay through some borrowed binoculars he declared that this was “The most beautiful bird I have ever seen.”  So take a second, closer look at the plants and animals that you see every day.  

If you ever see a dandelion that looks good enough to eat, go ahead and give in to your instinct.  The flowers, along with the leaves and even the roots are edible and tasty.

Yikes! Poison ivy!!  Don’t touch it, but look at this plant as something more than a threat on a hike in a natural area.  In early spring, when the leaves emerge without the chlorophyll that makes them green, the shiny red leaves are as pretty as any spring flower.

Another “do not touch” plant, this time a wineberry bramble.  All those short, red thorns hurt as much as a large greenbrier thorn, but—along with leaves that look like they are made of crepe paper—they are quite attractive, and when the fruit is ripe it is worth risking a puncture for the tasty treat.

This is a “do touch” plant.  Common mullen is sometimes called lamb’s ears because each leaf is soft and furry.  This plant may provide a greater tactile pleasure than a visual one but I find the pattern formed by the swirl of leaves to be beautiful.

At one point or another every birdwatcher—hoping to see a common merganser, northern shoveler, or pintail—but instead seeing a mallard—has said in disappointment, “Oh, it is only a mallard.”  I plead guilty to this charge, Your Honor.  OnlyOnly a mallard?  The female mallard is often overlooked even more easily than the male, with his iridescent green head, but her patterns of yellowish orange, black, and brown are also lovely.

I am a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society, a British-based organization that extols the importance of actually looking at clouds.  To CAS members there is nothing more boring than a cloudless blue sky.  Don’t just look at the sky for a weather forecast; look at it for the beautiful compositions of the ever-changing clouds.

Canada geese are common, noisy, produce a lot of waste, and they are quite beautiful. 

Mourning doves are one of the most commonly seen birds in central New Jersey.  Not only are there a lot of them, but also they have managed to thrive in human-built environments.  I see them on utility wires, they hang out on the pergola in my backyard, and they fly up from lawns, meadows, road rights of way, and playgrounds.  They are so common that it takes an effort to remember that a close look is rewarding.  I think of the pattern of feathers on their wings and backs as looking like an Art Deco design.  Their blue eye ring is a feature that is hard to see but surprising when you see it.  Even their legs and feet—which don’t show much in the above photo—are a dark pink color.

Lichen and moss often appear together on rocks and tree trunks.  Wind sweeps fallen leaves and other debris from these surfaces, allowing the moss and lichen to get life-sustaining sunlight.  In the above photo, the mosses are splotches of blackish green and the lichens are greenish, yellowish, and silver colored.  Mosses are true plants, with tiny stems and leaves, seen when you take a very close look.  Lichens are not plants but are a combination of algae, fungi, and often cyanobacteria.  Neither moss nor lichen have roots.  Both reproduce by spores, but lichens can also reproduce asexually by having a small part of a patch dislocated and established somewhere else.  They are present year around but become more noticeable in winter when the forest pallet is otherwise diminished.

Any list of “unseen beauties” has to include the American robin.  The patch of red on its breast is especially bright in males during breeding season.

By Jim Amon.