Our monitoring expert Thomas, isn’t just a source of knowledge about birds and bees. Like many bird enthusiasts he’s passionate about other wildlife too.
Here he shares some of his know-how about beautiful butterflies:
If, like us at Bird Aware Solent, you are a lover of birds that spend the winter on our shores, you may surprise yourself by how much you enjoy chasing butterflies.
As the Solent’s birds leave for the summer, the butterflies are just emerging, meaning you can go straight from one to the other.
From June to August, our beautiful Solent coastline can be busy with visitors from across the country and beyond. They come to enjoy the area and to appreciate its wonderful wildlife. But this sometimes means the Solent birds’ favourite local spots – and our own favourite walks – can become a little overcrowded.
This gives us another good reason to seek out new walks further inland and try our hands at identifying new groups of animals and plants.
Butterflies are a very popular group, especially amongst bird aficionados, and many people are familiar with some of our common, larger species like red admirals and peacocks.
But with more than 40 resident butterfly species in Hampshire, Sussex, and the Isle of Wight, as well as several regular visitors which holiday in our counties each summer, butterfly identification can be deceptively tricky for beginners.
Where to start?
There are a few main groups to be aware of when looking to identify a British butterfly. While scientific groupings can be complicated, expect most butterflies you run into to be aristocrats, blues (and coppers), whites (and yellows), hairstreaks, fritillaries, skippers, or browns. Any butterfly not belonging to these groupings is probably a rarity like a swallowtail or a Duke of Burgundy.
In this feature, we’re going to cover the first four of these groups: aristocrats, blues (and coppers), whites (and yellows), and hairstreaks. We’ll be talking about the other three groups in a future feature.
Let’s run through a few of the more common representatives of each of the first four groups to get started!
Many of our most iconic butterflies are grouped together informally as the aristocrats. You’ll notice many of their common names refer to titles and nobility such as emperor, lady, or admiral! They are typically larger butterflies with some orange on their wings.
The peacock is unmistakable when it gives you a flash of its pearly ‘eyes’ atop its ruddy-orange upper wings. Meanwhile, the undersides of its wings are almost completely black, meaning it is great at camouflage as well.
Peacock butterfly: unmistakable with ‘eyes’ atop its ruddy-orange upper wing
The red admiral is a large, powerful butterfly with mostly black wings with a dark orange stripe and flecked with white at the tips. There’s no other butterfly quite like it, though the smaller migrant species painted lady gets close, though it is considerably more orange.
Red admiral: a large powerful butterfly
Painted lady: a migrant species
The striking small tortoiseshell is known for its unique, attractive patterning. This used to be enough to be confident in identifying it, however there are suggestions that its cousin, the large tortoiseshell, once extinct in the UK, may be making a return to our shores.
Small tortoiseshell – the large tortoiseshell may be making a return to our shores
You are unlikely to mistake the comma for any other butterfly, though you would be forgiven for taking it for a falling leaf at first glance! This butterfly mimics fallen leaves with its appearance and colour in order to escape predators.
Comma butterfly: mimics fallen leaves
Blues and coppers
The blues are a family of small, dainty butterflies whose wing colour span the full spectrum of blue hues. The underside of their wings is typically spotted, and female blues are often far more brown than males, sometimes only having a light blue dusting at the base of their wings. This means that blues often require close inspection to tell apart.
The first blue to emerge each spring is the holly blue, whose most notable feature is the absence of any orange on the underside of its wings, which distinguishes it from the common blue, our most widespread blue.
Holly blue butterfly: no orange on the underside of its wings
Common blue butterfly: our most widespread blue
Small blues, true to their name, are far smaller than all other blues and are not easily mistaken for other species.
Small blue butterfly: much smaller than all other blues
Adonis blue males are a brilliant sky-blue colour which does not always come across well in photos but is unmistakable in real life, making this blue a case of ‘you’ll know it when you see it’. In contrast, male chalk hill blues are paler than most blues.
Finally, brown argus, despite being a blue, is not blue at all, but brown, meaning they can be easily confused with female common blues, for instance.
Adonis blue butterfly: a brilliant sky-blue colour
Chalk hill blue butterfly: paler than most blues
Brown argus butterfly: easily confused with female common blues
Our one copper species is the small copper. It is a small, mostly orange butterfly with multiple dark spots and there are no other obviously similar butterflies to mistake it with.
Small copper butterfly: orange with multiple dark spots
Whites and yellows
The most reliable way to tell apart large and small whites at a glance is to look for the black tips at the end of their forewings, these are wider and bolder on the large whites. Size can be deceptive so despite the names try to avoid the temptation to base your identification on size alone.
Large white butterfly: wider and bolder black tips
Small white butterfly: narrower black tips at the end of their forewings
The green-veined white appears similar to the small white but has prominent greenish ‘veins’ on its wings.
Orange-tip males are unmistakable due to the orange tipped wings which give the species its name, however female orange-tips are almost indistinguishable to small whites. For this reason, the best way to tell them apart is to get a look at the underside of its wings, which is a blotchy green ‘camouflage’ pattern in the case of orange-tips.
Green veined white butterfly: prominent greenish ‘veins’
Orange-tip butterflies: females are almost indistinguishable from small whites
Brimstones have a distinctive wing shape reminiscent of a leaf which makes them unmistakable from up close. Males have yellow-green underwings while females have pale yellow underwings which means they can be confused with large whites from a distance.
Clouded yellow are golden-yellow, medium-sized butterflies. They are a migrant species but are now a common sight in mid to late summer.
Brimstone butterfly: leaf-like wing shape
Clouded yellow butterfly: a migrant species but now more common in mid to late summer
Five small butterflies with a white ‘streak’ across the underside of their wings form the UK’s hairstreak family. None of these species are particularly easy to spot, but in our counties you are only likely to come across four.
The purple hairstreak is a small purple butterfly and is easy to identify but tends to keep high up in the trees. It can be found wherever oaks are present. The green hairstreak is also distinctive, but its emerald colouring means it is well camouflaged.
Purple hairstreak butterfly: keeps high up in trees
Green hairstreak butterfly: well camouflaged
A rather bedraggled-looking purple hairstreak found by Thomas
Brown hairstreak butterfly: notice the little tail at the base of its wings
Whiteletter hairstreak butterfly: named for its W-shaped streak
The brown hairstreak could be mistaken at first glance for another small brown butterfly species such as meadow brown, but the presence of a little tail at the base of their wings that is characteristic of hairstreaks should be enough to tip you off. Make sure to check the underside of their wings for the white streak if you have any doubt! This will also help you identify the white-letter hairstreak, so-named for its W-shaped streak.
Fritillaries, skippers and browns
Next time, we will round out our introduction to common butterflies with some of the most distinctive summer insects: the fritillaries, skippers and browns.