Nature Quest: Butterfly summer

Marbled white (Melanargia galathea)Summer is traditionally a quiet time for birdwatching, as most birds have finished breeding and many are busy moulting. Sometimes it feels as if all the birds have simply disappeared, and for some migrants that’s true, as some species are already getting ready to leave our shores for the winter.

Fortunately, summer is also the perfect time to get to grips with other wildlife – for me, the ideal opportunity to undertake my ‘Nature Quest‘ challenge of learning to identify UK butterflies!

Good year for butterflies?

After a run of pretty dismal, damp summers this year has been quite warm and dry in the UK, and the butterflies certainly seem to have benefitted. I don’t remember ever seeing as many butterflies as I have this year – back in the spring I was seeing orange-tips and peacocks everywhere, followed by too many meadow browns to count, and this week alone I’ve spotted over 13 different species in my local area. All good news for a group of insects that has seen worrying declines in recent decades.

Common blue (Polyommatus icarus) Essex skipper  (Thymelicus lineola) Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus)

Having so many different species out in good numbers, and with decent weather to watch them in (as well as a bit of butterfly watching while on holiday in Croatia), I’ve managed to go from knowing only a couple of the most obvious butterfly species to being able to identify a fair proportion. However, more importantly I’ve learnt a few things about butterflies and butterfly watching along the way…

The top 5 things I’ve learnt about butterfly watching:

1. Butterflies can be surprisingly tricky to photograph

Sure, it’s not hard to get a good butterfly photo if your subject is posing nicely on a flower. I’ve managed to get some ok photos using only my phone, so you don’t even need fancy equipment. However, first you have to get the butterfly to co-operate – which is easier said than done!

Most of my butterfly photography seems to involve madly following the insect around while it decides whether or not it feels like landing. If it does land, it’s a mad dash to get close enough before it flies away again (which it usually does just as you take the photo!). A telephoto lens sometimes helps, unless the butterfly decides to be TOO close. Hence, a large number of out-of-focus/distant/’record’ shots result…

Butterfly taking off White admiral (Limenitis camilla) 'record shot'

There are also typically many annoying blades of grass to contend with…

Silver-studded blue (Plebejus argus)Although you occasionally do meet a more co-operative subject who is willing to come to you!

Southern white admiral, Croatia2. Chasing butterflies around can make you look a little odd

Ok, perhaps the same can be said about peering intently into a bush with a pair of binoculars, but at least with birds it’s usually fairly obvious what you’re looking at. I seem to have spent a fair amount of time in recent weeks running around in fields, crouching at weird angles in long grass with my camera, and inexplicably staring with great interest at leaves. The trouble with butterflies is that while you’re chasing after them trying to get a photo, or at least an ID, they’re not necessarily flying in a straight line. So your mad chase (the object of which is not immediately apparent to the casual observer) goes all over the place – backwards, forwards, up, down and then back the way you came. All of which makes you feel the need to go and explain to everyone nearby that ‘I’m just chasing a butterfly!’

Butterfly watching - your subject isn't always apparent!On a few of my walks I’ve also occasionally found myself contending with biting flies, which leads to an interesting combination of running backwards and forwards, staring into the air or into the grass and then waving my arms around in a slightly worrying fashion.

3. Identifying British butterflies isn’t as hard as I thought

As I hinted at above, my knowledge of British butterflies before this year was fairly (and shamefully, for a zoologist) basic. Yes, I could identify a red admiral, a peacock butterfly, a comma, and get as far as saying that something was a type of ‘white’, but I’d have been unsure of what a skipper looked like – let alone which species it was – and couldn’t have told you what a gatekeeper or meadow brown looked like. And while I thought something like a tortoiseshell was quite easy, put it next to a painted lady and suddenly I was not so sure.

There are some fantastic guides available to help you identify butterflies, both online and in handy ID charts – if you’re interested, try the Butterfly Conservation website and UK Butterflies. (There are also plenty of resources for butterflies elsewhere in the world – see links at the end of this post.)

Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)Painted lady (Vanessa cardui)

Meadow brown (Maniola jurtina)Comma (Polygonia c-album)

4. Butterfly watching has more in common with birdwatching than I thought

Being primarily a birdwatcher, perhaps I haven’t paid butterflies enough attention before. Or, probably more likely, I’ve just seen so few butterflies in recent years (particularly where I previously lived in the inner city) that I’ve not had a chance to observe them properly. By being able to get out into the countryside more this year and seeing more butterflies over the changing seasons, I’ve noticed things about them that I hadn’t really considered before.

Firstly, as with birds they can be quite specific to certain habitats. With some of the rarer butterflies in particular, it helps to know where you can expect to find them if you want to see them. For example, it took a trip to a specific wood in Surrey to spot this (somewhat faded) purple emperor:

Purple emperor (Apatura iris)The types of species you might see also varies over the season, as it can with birds – orange-tips were everywhere earlier in the year, but now gatekeepers seem to be the species of the month. Finally, birdwatchers often speak of being able to identify birds by their ‘jizz’ – the combination of size, shape, behaviour and other features which together give you a feel of what species you’re looking at. I’m learning that the same can be said about butterflies, and that you don’t always need a close-up look at their wings to identify them – sometimes a general impression of colour, size, flight, habitat and behaviour can be enough.

5. There’s more to butterflies than meets the eye

Perhaps this is hinted at in all the above points, but I’ve certainly noticed a lot more about butterflies by going out looking for them. Rather than just being pretty insects that passively fly around and occasionally land on a flower, they are complex animals with senses and behaviour we can only begin to guess at. Watch a butterfly flying around (possibly as you try and chase it to get that elusive photo…) and you’ll notice that what appears to be its way of teasing you into thinking it’s about to land is actually the butterfly carefully investigating its environment. Do they study each plant they come to, perhaps sensing certain things about its colour and smell, and are they very specific about what they’re after?

Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas)Common blue

As you watch a butterfly flying, you also notice that each species moves very differently: some fast, some with glides, some with more leisurely wing beats, some apparently with a random goal and others more clearly going from A to B. Close-up photos have also helped me to see details I might otherwise have missed – who knew that the purple emperor butterfly had a yellow tongue?! Or that some butterflies carry some pretty large parasites (the large red/brown dots on the individuals below):

Blue butterfly with parasitesCommon blue with parasites

It’s also fascinating to watch how different butterflies interact with both their own and other species in the air, and how individuals can even appear to compete with other insects such as bees for access to flowers.

Finally, it can be a real privilege when such a beautiful and delicate insect allows you close, or even, as in the photo below, seeks you out – in this case to take advantage of the salts in our sweat!

Southern white admiral drinking sweat, CroatiaOver to you!

Today is the last day of the Big Butterfly Count in the UK, an event which encourages the public to count butterflies and help conservationists to keep track of their changing fortunes. However, you can still record butterflies after the event has finished – why not download the iRecord Butterflies app and record the species you see while you’re out and about?

If you want to help support butterfly conservation in the UK, I’d encourage you to join Butterfly Conservation (they currently have a half price membership offer!).

And if you want to identify butterflies, or find out more about butterflies in Europe or the Americas, take a look at:

Of course, you can also do your bit to help these fabulous insects by growing a range of butterfly-friendly plants in your garden – Butterfly Conservation gives some gardening for butterflies tips here.

Blue butterfly species, CroatiaAs a final note – while out spotting butterflies I’ve noticed it’s also been a good year for grasshoppers, which have provided a chirping, chirruping soundtrack to many of my walks. So, the challenge for next year… Grasshopper ID!

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