This is a short photographic ID guide to common butterflies that are on the wing at the moment and which may be seen in your gardens or on walks around your home. This isn’t an exhaustive guide to all species; it covers a range of butterflies that I have seen in my garden and locally and which I have taken photos of with my phone. The 14 pictures show 13 species (two show the male and female Orange-tips which are very different) and show the butterflies in ‘real life’ poses and how they may be encountered in the wild. Plate 1 shows 7 species (A-H) and Plate 2 shows another 6 species (I-N) and are all taken by myself locally, but extra pictures and drawings are available online. So whilst we all have time off work and in lockdown, why not choose a sunny day, pick up a pair of binoculars and get out there to look for Lepidoptera!
The first species in the guide is the Green Hairstreak (A) and is the least likely of all the species’ shown to be encountered. I personally see lots of these when they hatch en masse on the mossland habitat near my home; but this is a specialist butterfly. It does frequent a variety of scrubby habitats, not usually gardens, but is very localised and is declining in numbers, so you will be very lucky to find these near your home. As the only vivid green butterfly in the UK it is unmistakeable.
The next species is Brimstone (B), the original ‘butter-coloured fly’ from which this group of insects got their name. It is found in most habitats including gardens and is widespread, with numbers going up or staying steady across its range. Males are bright yellow and unmistakeable, females are paler, a cream colour and need close observation to ID.
The third species is another ‘white’ butterfly, the Large White (C), colloquially known as Cabbage White, along with the Small White. Again these are widespread and can be found in gardens and the countryside. The Large White is common but is declining, possibly due to pest control, but is not in danger as yet.
The next species is a delicate ‘white’, the Green-veined White (D) which prefers damper habitats, but again will frequent gardens and farm fields. It can look quite yellow on the wing, so examination of a settled specimen is recommended for certain ID. It is abundant and massively increasing in recent years.
The next two shots are of the Orange-tip (E & F), one of the early spring species and, definitely in the case of the male, one of the smartest. The male has striking orange tips to the upperwings (F), which are missing in the female (E). Both have a distinctive underwing pattern, so check that out in your optics to distinguish females from other whites. Again this can be seen in gardens, so leave lots of nectaring plants for them and is increasing in numbers like the previous species.
The other Cabbage White – Small White (G), is the next species pictured. Again optics will help in identification but as the name suggests so will its size. Another ubiquitous species found anywhere and on the increase in the UK.
The final species on Plate 1 is the Holly Blue (H) a specialist species seen in places with its caterpillars’ food plants, holly and ivy. This butterfly has both spring and autumn broods so can be seen in both seasons of the year. It is widespread and commonly flies in gardens but its restless habits means that it sometimes won’t settle for good views. It has been spreading over the UK but numbers are declining, so one to keep out a sharp eye for.
The next group of butterflies are collectively known as the vanessids, and have a common food plant for their caterpillars, namely nettles. So if you want to attract these to your garden let those nettles thrive! They also hibernate over winter, so early in the year tatty ones are often seen as they emerge when temperatures rise.
The first of these is a familiar butterfly, the Small Tortoiseshell (I), commonly seen nectaring on buddleia bushes throughout summer. Keep an eye out too for them basking on bare soil, paths, etc. They are common everywhere and are spreading and increasing in numbers, but can have good and bad years, so make a note of how many you see.
Another familiar species in this family is the Peacock (J) which has similar habits to the last species and usually is even more common. Their dark underwings make this an often overlooked species when roosting up but on the wing they catch the eye with their vibrant colours.
The next member of this family, the Comma (K), may be less familiar to many but it is unmistakeable when seen well. It likes to bask on bramble bushes and is usually quite approachable. When it closes its wings look for the tiny white comma mark on the dark background - the feature that gives it its name. Again this is a common butterfly and likely to visit gardens.
The final member shown here is the Red Admiral (L), another common garden species. As with all vanessids they love buddleia (also called Butterfly Bush), so definitely worth planting some in the garden to attract butterflies. When I was younger this was one of the most common species, but in the last few years numbers have dropped, so enjoy every one that you find.
A species that can be attracted to gardens is the Speckled Wood (M), as long as you have dappled patches of sunlight. These butterflies like to defend these patches as their territories and you will often see two of them in aerial combat, flying up in circles and then tumbling down - mesmerising. They are spreading northwards in the UK and are common, so most of us should be able to see one.
The final species, a bit like the first, is less common but with luck you should find it - the Large Skipper (N). It seeks out Birds Foot Trefoil, a ground hugging yellow pea-like flower, so look for this to search for this species. It is a tiny, rapid flying butterfly, looking more like a moth than a butterfly at times. There is a similar species in the same habitat, Small Skipper, but that is rarer. Subtle ID features need to be seen to separate the two, one being the pointed, curved ends of the Large Skipper’s antennae as seen in the photo.
So set yourself a target, try to see as many of these as possible, get out and get kitted out with binoculars and a mobile phone/camera to start your own illustrated butterfly list. Later in the year lots more new species will be on the wing too. Hopefully I’ll post again when they are, with pictures of course! Have Fun!!