After seemingly endless months of grey, the sun is finally emerging, and with it some tentative butterflies – you may have already seen some flutter across your path. Whilst butterflies are gorgeous, playful, and uplifting for the soul, they can be infuriating to identify. They move as they please, often the second before your finger presses the camera button, and they don’t tend to like waiting around for you to count their spots and stripes. I have spent hours over the past few summers running in circles like a mad person (butterfly hunting is very good for your humility), or wading through nettles up to my waist trying to get close enough to identify one while it settles briefly. But a precious moment beside such a lovely creature, and the photo, or satisfying ‘tick’ in the guide book you can take home are well worth the scratches and stings.
It can be hard to get your head around the multitude of patterns and colours at first, especially as they move so very quickly, but this guide will be a starting point, introducing you to a few of the common butterflies you might see around Combe Down, Monkton Combe, and Southstoke between now and June (part two to follow), and tips on how to familiarise yourself with them.
The Peacock, and Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral are some of the earliest butterflies to appear from January. They are all very similar in shape, and in their bold black, white, and orange colouring. They fly with speed rather than ‘fluttering’, they rest with their wings open to soak in the sunshine, and will often come to the garden – they are particularly fond of buddleia flowers.
Brimstone – Brimstones can vary in colour from white, to glowing yellow, to green. They were allegedly the inspiration for the name ‘butterfly’ as they are the colour of butter! They can be seen from January, often gravitating towards yellow flowers such as daffodils. If you get close enough, you can admire their pointed wing tips, rather like elf ears.
Holly Blue and Common Blue – these two blues are often no more than a shimmer across your path, and can be very hard to tell apart. As the upper wings are virtually identical, you have to identify them by the underwing (not an easy task!). The Holly Blue has rows of black dots on the pale blue underwing, and the Common Blue has black dots with white rims, and orange spots. If they’re not in the mood to settle, however, you can go by the rule that Holly Blues fly about four metres off the ground, whereas Common Blues tend to fly at ground level.
Orange tip – Orange Tips are delightfully bright, found from April in damp meadows. The male upper wing is virtually unmistakeable with its tangerine splodges, but the female upper wing is very similar to the small white. Therefore, you have to identify them by the underwing, which is checkered white and green.
The cabbage whites (so named because their caterpillar food plant is cabbage!) are very common in gardens from around May. They are also very similar to each other, except that the Large White is of course larger, and has much bolder black markings than the Small White, whose markings are more dusty grey. Your eye should adjust to the difference after you’ve spotted a few.
Speckled wood – the speckled wood is found hanging around trees and woody glades (hence its name speckled ‘wood’) from April. Its checkerboard markings make it easy to spot, even in the shade
I hope this has given you a few to start looking for – you will eventually grow familiar with their habitats, markings and flight patterns even from a distance. Once you start noticing them, you’ll see them everywhere! Good luck with your butterfly hunting, and I hope it gives you as much joy as it does me (and not too many nettle stings!)
Written by Abby Button
All the photos were taken by the author, except for the Brimstone, which was provided by butterfly conservation.