This is the last flowering plant to blossom in the high country, so already in autumn.
Like most New Zealand flowers the gentian (Gentiana bellidifolia) has white blossoms whereas most gentians worldwide are blue or purplish blue.
Like the Mt. Cook Lilies and Daisies they grow in the tussock herbfields which are dominated by snow grasses and tussocks, far above the treeline.
Get too close to this strikingly yellow blooming plant and you know where its name comes from ;-)
It is an Aciphylla species (Aciphylla aurea), a common spear grass, flowering from November until the end of December. Wherever you walk in the Mt. Cook Village area, be it the Hooker Valley Walk or the Tasman Lake walks, those spectacular plants are everywhere along the tracks, and dotted all over the lower slopes of the mountains.
There is no reason not to keep a safety distance after the flowering season. Also the spines of the dying stalks have very sharp tips and can do quite some harm. The grass tufts are also quite sharp and keep their yellowish shine, and so add warm colour to the rocky landscape.
An interesting detail is that this plant has male and female flowering heads. The female inflorescence is much longer lasting than the wider more showy male – like in real life LOL
Favorite thing: Also known as mountain daisy or Celmisia verbascifolia (in an old encyclopedia I found the name Celmisia petiolata), this is the world’s largest daisy. The petals are white and the centre yellow. The leaves are greyish with a velvety look and feel, and dot the slopes of the mountains long after the flowers have faded.
First of all: This alpine plant is no lily but the world’s largest buttercup species – which becomes clear when you read the Latin name Ranunculus lyallii, and so also called Giant Mountain Buttercup.
It is the first flower to appear in the alpine regions east of the Southern Alps in late spring. Named after Mt. Cook, you also find lots of them in and around Arthur’s Pass and other alpine foothills.
The Mt. Cook Lily has masses of creamy white flowers and large, round and glossy leaves. Best time to admire those big flowers is mid November/December – with variations, depending on how hard or mild the previous winter has been. When the lilies start fading the Mt. Cook Daisies start to flower.
I have a big heart for New Zealand’s small birds. The endemic tomtit is one of them.
On the South Island the yellow-breasted tit is the common one, mostly found in beech forests, and a visit to the Mt. Cook region would be close to disappointing for me if I did not spot one of those tiny cuties.
Although they can sing beautifully the tomtits always approach you without making a noise. They suddenly sit in front of you, right under your nose, be it on a fence, a wire, a shrub, a carpark barrier. They check out who steps into their territory.
What makes the tomtits even cuter are their proportions. They have a big head with big eyes, and a very short tail. The upper part of the breast is yellow to orange, really striking sometimes, and the colour is intensified because the dividing line between the light-coloured underparts and the black head is straight. The most intense colouring is near the dividing line. The upperparts are as glossy black as the head but they have a white frontal spot in the centre of their forehead. There is a white bar on the wings, and their legs are bright orange. The North Island the tomtits have white breasts.
If you see a similar bird on the South Island it most definitely is a robin. Just the black is not as intense as the tomtit’s. They have much longer legs and longer tails. The North Island robins have dark breasts. They are not shy at all.
Sometimes I call the tomtit’s behaviour “Princess Di”-like. This is because they hold their heads slightly bent, and then looking up to you, like the young and shy Princess. When once they know that you know that they are near they often fly to a tree branch and start to sing beautifully. This territorial song intensifies in July right through the breeding season (September to February). Tomtits feed on invertebrates and fruit (in autumn and winter).
Other names of the tomtit are Miromiro, pied tit (North Island), yellow-breasted tit (South Island) or ngiru-ngiru. Latin: Petroica macrocephala.
To answer my question of the headline: No bird is cuter than a tomtit – but fantails and robins are as cute, and also the silvereyes… ;-)
Fondest memory: -
Other bird species to look out for:
Other non-endemic birds that show surprising behaviour in the Mt. Cook region are the chaffinches. Normally very shy, they have adapted well to the visiting tourists at the carparks. I have seen them hop onto the picnic tables and wait for being served some bread crumbs from the visitors’ sandwiches. There is clearly less competition than on my deck where the chaffinches always stay behind all the other European birds like the aggressive starlings and greenfinches, and also sparrows, or blackbirds.
Other endemic and native birds you can hear and see are the bellbird (Anthornis melanura), rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris), rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris) and silvereye (Zosterops lateralis).
Along the rivers of the national park you find a lot of wading birds, as the wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis), black-fronted tern (Sterna albostriata), the banded dotterel (Charadrius bicinctus), the pied oystercatcher (Haematopus finschi), the pied stilt (Himantopus himantopus), and the extremely rare black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae – see extra tip).
Please excuse the photo – but I only got this falcon sitting at the shelter of the Lake Tasman/Ball Hut carpark against the sun and in really bad light.
The NZ Falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) is a rare endemic raptor, also called Karearea by the Maori. They measure about 45 cm, and the female weighs significantly more than the male (500 g/300 g). There are three species found in New Zealand; the one you might spot in the Mt. Cook area is the Eastern Falcon, as it lives in the open country of the eastern South Island, breeding along the eastern side of the Southern Alps from Marlborough to Southland, and some other small areas.
As said, the falcon is rare although it is wide-spread. Estimates in the 1970’s numbered only about 4000 pairs: 3150 of the Eastern Falcons, 650 of Bush Falcons of the North Island, and 200 of Southern Falcons from coastal Fiordland, Stewart Island and the Auckland Islands. They suffer from land clearance and the logging of podocarps which are their preferred nesting sites. However, not everything is gloomy. The falcons profit from roading along forest edges and the introduction of rabbits, hares and small birds, especially finches, blackbirds, song thrushes and skylarks :-( Falconery is only allowed with birds bred in captivity. Pigeon fanciers and poultry farmers sometimes shoot them, hoping not to get caught and sued, as falcons are strictly protected.
The birds are darkish brown and have white breasts, bellies with brown vertical streaks, and a big dark patch under the eyes. Juveniles are significantly darker allover, they do not have the white breast feathers yet. The legs are rather short and yellow. The beak is short and hook-shaped like in most raptors but rather vertical, a bit like the budgies.
Hopefully you do not get near a falcon nest. They are very territorial in the breeding season (September to February) and would attack people. For food, they would attack huge birds like pigeons, magpies, white-faced herons and black-backed gulls. They catch prey by the sharp talons, not by the bill.
The more common raptor of the region is the Australasian harrier (Circus approximans).
Birds I really spot a lot in the Mt. Cook area is the New Zealand Pipit (Pihoihoi; Latin: Anthus novaeseelandiae). Most times I see it sitting on thorny shrubs and trees, and on scree slopes. The pipits- four of the species are only found in NZ – love open habitats, from the coast to alpine tops. As you find a lot less birds in mountainous areas you notice them a lot more than in lower lying regions. You will not find them in heavily farmed areas. (I do not like this either LOL)
The pipit looks rather similar to the skylark but does not have the skylark’s crest. The head and upperparts are brown, the outer tail feathers white, and it has a striking white eyebrow. The underparts are whitish, the breast streaked brown. Typical behaviour is the up and down flicking of the long tail. They love to sit on prominent perches and call a shrill “scree” or “zwee”. During breeding time you can hear them call “pipit”.
Breeding time is from August to February. Both parents feed the fledglings. As the pipit is a native bird it is protected. They feed on insects and larvae, mainly taken from the ground.
Even if you do not see a kea in the Mt. Cook area you can be sure they are there. Let me tell you two stories – one funny, the other one a little sad – about those inquisitive mountain parrots referring to this region. (Find all other info about keas in the travelogues on my South Island page.)
At the start of 2006 the newspapers and TV reported about the safety measures taken by the organisers of a vintage car rally that ended in Mt. Cook Village. As you can imagine, vintage cars is about the favourite object any kea can imagine, as they do not only have the usual rubber parts like tyres, windscreen wipers and a lot of rubber seals keas really love to destroy. They are also brilliantly shining, with all the polished chrome. And additionally many vintage cars are convertibles, and soft tops do not stop keas – they rather consider them a challenge. And if they are open – well, keas also love to destroy nicely maintained leather seats…
So the organisers thought about the safety issue long and hard – and finally hired the members of Mt. Cook Village’s karate club. Of course, the members should not kill the birds by hitting them. The club had just most members (40) of all clubs in Mt. Cook Village (400 inhabitants). No other place in the country has as a higher percentage of karateka and black belt bearers. The fighters only had to chase the keas away when they came too close to the cars. You cannot do more as the parrots are fully protected.
The other kea story is rather sad. DOC rangers noticed quite a big number of dead birds in the area. Autopsies were carried out, and they found out that the keas had died from lead poisoning. This resulted from the birds checking out the screws with which the metal rooves normally are attached to huts and houses. So now they have started to replace the screws with “healthier” ones, so the keas survive their own curiosity.
To the right of Mt Cook is what is left of the Tasman Glacier. They say about 14,000 years ago the glacier began to melt and retreat to where it is today. Back then, where you stand at the visitor centre to view the mountain and lake, the glacier was 300 metres thick. Over the middle of the glacier it was 13 kilometres wide and 1700metres deep!
The strength and power of the glacier is apparent when you drive up to Mt Cook Village, as you can see the rock ridges and the gravel flats, where it had forced the gravel in its path.
The colour of the water is caused by the rocks grinding and creating a sort of flour that is suspended in the water.
There aren't many roads in the Mt Cook National Park, this is the main one heading directly for the mountain.
As you can see they have wonderful metal down there and build lovely firm smooth roads. Not many cars per hectare in the South Island, so it's often like this, empty.
Remember, though, to keep to the left as it's very easy to drift over to the right (wrong) side of the road when there are no cars around. That is if you are from a country who drives on the right side.