The Very Amateur Naturalist
Nick Ostler is a scriptwriter by day and a wildlife obsessive also mainly by day. Instagram @theveryamateurnaturalist Twitter @theveryamateur1 All images and words © Nick Ostler
I never used to bother trying to identify butterflies. Every time I crept close to one it would fly off before I’d had the chance to get a good look, zipping away over a hedge never to be seen again. So in my youthful impatience, I stuck to birding and generally ignored other flying creatures.
The game changer came a few years ago when I got an iPhone (other smart phone brands are available!). Now when that butterfly briefly touched down I could grab a quick snap of it before it flew, then identify it at my leisure over a cup of tea at home.
Before long I could tell what most of the butterflies I saw were without having to take a picture, although often I do anyway, to confirm trickier IDs and to help me remember what I’ve spotted. Once I’d ‘tuned in’ to butterflies, I realized of course that watching them is not that different to watching birds – sometimes they cooperate and sometimes they don’t! But it was just as addictive, and I kicked myself for missing out for so long.
Identifying every butterfly you see is honestly not that hard. For starters, only about 60 species occur in the UK (compared to 600 for birds and 2,500 for moths!). Of those, about half are pretty rare or very localized, so let’s not worry about them for now. In the average British garden I reckon you could easily clock 15 species over the course of the summer (my garden list stands at 25 after our second summer here, but we’re lucky enough to be in a rural area near a variety of habitats, plus I work at home and stare out of the window a lot!). I firmly believe that anyone can learn to ID most butterflies they’re likely to see in the UK with a little practice. So let’s do it!
The following categories are my own and not at all scientific, and I’m only giving you the ID headlines to get you started, so please forgive anything I’ve over-simplified or omitted.
If you see a medium-sized butterfly that is generally dark in tone and has a combination of orange, red and black markings, chances are it’s one of four species. Peacock is easy – it has those big blue ‘eyes’ on the hind-wing staring back at you. The strong-flying Red Admiral looks black except for some bold red and white stripes. The Small Tortoiseshell has a more refined combination of black, yellow and white markings against an orange background, fringed with blue dots (and are sadly much less common than they used to be, so probably the least likely to see of this lot).
The Comma is orange with black dots, but easy to distinguish by its uniquely dented wing edges that look like they’ve been attacked by a child armed with scissors. Finally, the hedgerow-loving Brimstone is totally different and easy to ID, as it’s our only resident yellow butterfly. Its beautifully scalloped wings make for surprisingly good camouflage when at rest.
I won’t use the name ‘Cabbage White’ firstly because it’s not a species but rather a collective term for two species – the Large White and Small White. And secondly because it defines them as a pest, which they’re not – they’re a lovely butterfly that you should be pleased to have in your garden. I mean, who likes cabbage that much anyway? Size is, as you’d expect, the quickest way to tell them apart, plus the Large has more extensive black markings. Keep an eye out too for the common but often overlooked Green-veined White, which as the name suggests has very obvious green veins running through its wings at rest.
The Orange-tip also makes this section as it is mainly white except for the striking orange wing-tips in the male (the female is trickier to separate from other whites until you see the underside hind-wing which is mottled green). Finally if you see a boldly marked black and white butterfly, then it’s probably the very smart and fairly common Marbled White.
There are as many as ten blue species of butterfly in the UK, but there are only two species you’re likely to see in your garden. The Common Blue male is small with lilac-blue wings fringed with a narrow white border. The female’s upperwings are brown, fringed with little orange dots, so it looks quite different, but still usually has a blue flush to its body. The underwings of both are pale buff with an array of black and orange spots. The other common blue is the Holly Blue, the female of which is easily distinguished by the black tips to the upperwings. The underside of both sexes is silvery-blue with sparse black dots only.
Blues can be a challenge to ID at first, so have your camera phone ready!
Now that you’ve mastered the common garden species, let’s explore a little of what can be found out there in the countryside. Some butterfly names do exactly what they say on the tin – if you see a large, mainly brown butterfly in a meadow, often in large numbers, it’s probably a Meadow Brown. Unless it’s a Ringlet, of course – but they’re easy to tell apart when you notice how much darker they are and admire the array of little ‘eye-spots’ on the wings.
You may have already seen the tiny Small Copper in your garden, but if not they can turn up anywhere and are pretty unmistakable with their bright copper, bold black-spotted upperwings. If there is one migratory butterfly it’s worth familiarizing yourself with, it’s the Painted Lady. Because in ‘big years’ when the conditions are right, they can arrive here from North Africa in huge numbers. Unsurprisingly they are big, strong flyers, that to me look like a paler cross between an over-sized Small Tortoiseshell and a Red Admiral.
Much like the Meadow Brown, the Speckled Wood is a aptly named – a highly speckled brownish-grey butterfly which you usually see in woods – often where the sun is breaking through. As with the Blues, there is a whole bunch of rarer Fritillaries you don’t need to trouble yourself with just yet, but the two commonest species are worth getting to know.
The Silver-washed Fritillary is a large orange butterfly of Southern woodland – its checkered black markings accounting for its family name (fritillus is Latin for ‘dice box’). The Dark Green Fritillary shares the same territory but is also seen in more open places and further north. It is darker with slightly different black markings, but telling them apart can take a little time. Finally the smart little Gatekeeper can be abundant in summer in woods and hedgerows – I always think of them as smaller, brighter Meadow Browns – and the ID clincher is the two white dots inside the black eye-spot as opposed to the Meadow Brown’s one.
Okay, that’s more than enough to get you started on your butterflying journey. Beyond those twenty species lies an array of further delights, from the moth-like Skippers to the legendary Purple Emperor, via my favourites, the characterful Hairstreaks!
For now though, I’ll leave you with some final ID tips:
Don’t cast a shadow!
I’ve messed up countless attempts to photograph basking butterflies by blocking their sunlight, at which point they invariably fly away!
Time & Place!
A little research goes a long way. Knowing which months a certain species is flying, in which part of the country they occur, what habitat they like, even what time of day they’re most active, can save you a wasted journey. And if it’s raining, or very overcast and windy, don’t bother!
Ask for help!
Butterfly enthusiasts love to share their knowledge. Join the brilliant Butterfly Conservation – their county branches all have great websites packed full of local information. Go on a guided walk with them. You’ll learn loads.
Plant it and they will come!
The most important thing we can all do is give butterflies plenty to eat. Plant the right flowers in your garden beds, pots or window box, sit back and let them come to you. There are lots of ‘best for pollinator’ lists out there, but every garden is different – in ours the most popular for butterflies are probably the buddleias, verbena and thistles.