Friday, February 10, 2012

New Zealand: Below Aoraki

Golly, I'm getting behind with this blog!  Apologies to any long-suffering readers that still look at this stuff...

On March 10 (2011!), before heading down to the east coast, we turned north to one of the South Island's most famous and magnificent sights: Aoraki, Mount Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand.  As this photo, taken from behind the black wall of a glacal moraine, shows, we were phenomenally lucky - the sun shone on the mountain, often obscured by cloud and mist, almost throughout our visit.

Of course the stunning scenery is the main reason most people visit Mount Cook, and there's a lot of it...

Not to mention a variety of mountain hikes.  We took a couple of the (very) easy ones.

One led to the clay-coloured waters of a glacial lake dotted with floating icebergs, calved from alpine glaciers like the ones in the lower photograph.


Its shore was bounded by centuries of glacial rubble, presumably washed down from the nearby moraine, supporting the occasional, oddly blue-green pond.

For those willing to tear their eyes away from the scenery, Mount Cook boasts an array of alpine plants.  Some - despite the lateness of the austral autumn season - were still in flower.  I am indebted to Hugh Wilson, author of a guide to the alpine flora of the mountain, for the names that follow (any mistakes are, of course, mine).

Most impressive were the dried spikes of golden spaniard (Aciphylla aurea), an unlikely-looking member of the carrot family (Apiaciae), their flowering period now finished.

These are the reddish leaves of scarlet snowberry (Gaultheria crassa), a plant I had seen earlier in Arthur's Pass.

Also strikingly rosy were the spikes of a willowherb (Epilobium melanocaulon), another member of a genus familiar from the northern hemisphere.

These are the flowers of New Zealand Bluebell (Wahlenbergia albomarginata), a  member of the Campanulaceae - the same family as the bluebells of England, but here they are autumn bloomers and, like so many of New Zealand's alpine wildflowers, white instead of blue (or very pale blue at best).

The dense, closely-packed growths of Raoulia glabra, a composite (Asteraceae), are a moderate alpine specialization compared with that of some of its close relatives, whose growth is packed into such a tight, mounded mass that they are known as "vegetable sheep".

Here's another, much more extreme species of Raoulia - a dense, moss-like mat, clinging to the ground in the face of the mountain winds.

By contrast, this really is a moss: woolly fringe-moss, Racomitrium lanuginosum.

Here, Raoulia (the flowering plant, above) meets Racomitrum (the moss, below) - as nice an example of botanical convergence as you could hope to see.

Not the world's largest amoeba, but a colony of lichen (Neofuscelia sp.).

The grass tree (Dracophyllum longifolium) is an exceedingly wide-ranging plant in New Zealand, found throughout the main isands from sea level to 1200 metres elevation.

A few more alpines: porcupine shrub (Melicytus alpinus), top; Piripiri (Acaena inermis), middle; and Hebe subalpina, bottom.

The tangled stems of matagouri (Discaria taumatou) once earned it the name "wild Irishman" - undoubtedly no longer politically correct for a variety of reasons.  Was this growth habit an attempt to discourage browsing moas?  Maybe - but for a negative opinion published as far back as 1905, see here.

Readers of this blog will know that I am fascinated by celery pines (Phyllocladus) and their leaflike, flattened branches.  Besides, I think Eileen looks very fetching next to this one, a mountain toatoa (P. alpinus).

Among the tussock grasses of the South Island there are tussock butterflies.  This one is a Common Tussock (Argyropenga antipodum), one of three New Zealand species.

An unspectacular bird except for its red eye and tinkling song: a Grey Warbler, Grey Gerygone or Riroriro (Gerygone igata).

And to finish, a considerably more striking species: a pair of Paradise Shelducks (Tadorna variegata), one of the more spectacular examples of sexual plumage difference in birds.  The female is the one with the white head.  

Paradise Ducks (as New Zealanders usually call them) are one of the few native birds that have benefited from European settlement, though some of the benefit is tough on individual birds as it is provided by hunters, who put out extra provisioning for their intended targets.  

Whatever you think of that, this has resulted (along with the increase in acreage devoted to pasture) has resulted in a lot more Paradise Ducks.  These two, poking around a National Park parking lot, obviously had nothing to worry about, and let us get satisfyingly close.

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