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Gatekeeper butterfly

As we’ve learnt before, our monitoring expert Thomas, isn’t just a source of knowledge about birds and bees. In recent blogs, he’s shown us that, like many bird enthusiasts, he’s passionate about other wildlife too.

Last month he shared some of his know-how about four groups of beautiful butterflies. In this month’s blog, he completes his round-up with some more common varieties: fritillaries, skippers, and browns.

Thomas Marceau joins Bird Aware Solent team

In a previous blog post I talked about four of our most common groups of butterflies: aristocrats, blues (and coppers), whites (and yellows), and hairstreaks. In this second part of our focus on butterflies, we’ll be taking you through the remaining three butterfly groups.

As we pointed out last month, chasing butterflies might be a perfect way to spend the summer months, when our coastline is more busy with human visitors and less busy with overwintering birds.


Small skipper butterfly


Skippers are small, moth-like butterflies which are recognisable by their quick, low-flying burst of flight which give them their name. If you manage to spot a skipper at rest, you will probably be able to notice that they often hold their wings closed in a distinct manner, with the upper wing held over the lower wing.

The unfortunately named dingy skipper is a small, brown, inconspicuous butterfly with a mottled and, if one were to be unkind, drab appearance. The grizzled skipper, meanwhile, has a more striking black and white pattern, but can be very hard to follow in flight.

dingy skipper
Dingy skipper: small, brown and inconspicuous
Grizzled skipper
Grizzled skipper: striking black and white pattern

Large, small and Essex skipper all look quite similar to one another. At rest, the large skipper is visibly bigger than the other two and sports a chequered pattern which is absent on the other two species.

To tell a small skipper from an Essex skipper, you’ll have to get up close to get a peek at the tip of its antennae: orange-tipped antennae for small, black-tipped for Essex!

large skipper
Large skipper: sports a chequered pattern
small skipper butterfly
Small skipper: orange-tipped antennae
essex skipper
Essex skipper: black-tipped antennae


Fritillaries are large, orange, powerful, summer butterflies, with dark markings. These butterflies can be hard to tell apart, and it is usually best to look at the underside of their wings for clues.

Two of the earliest fritillaries to emerge are the pearl-bordered fritillary and the small pearl-bordered fritillary. These are smaller than most fritillaries. You’ll have to inspect their underwings to reliably tell them apart from each other: the small pearl-bordered has more white ‘pearls’ and its chevrons are a dark red instead of black.

pearl-bordered fritillary
Pearl-bordered fritillary – spotted in the New Forest by Thomas

Dark green fritillaries really do make a statement with their bold dark markings on their upper wings and a green underwing with white spots.

Dark green fritillaries
 A pair of dark green fritillaries near Winchester

Not to be outdone, silver-washed fritillaries have emerald green underwings with silver streaks which lend them their name.

A small proportion of silver-washed fritillaries experience a rare colour variation called the valezina form, making them bronze-green instead of orange.

silver-washed fritillaries
Silver-washed fritillaries: emerald green underwings with silver streaks
Valezina: a rare colour variation

While these are some of our more common fritillaries, you may be lucky enough to come across some rarities.

For instance, Isle of Wight residents in particular should be on the lookout for the Glanville fritillary, which only rarely makes its way onto the mainland, and residents of North and West Hampshire should keep their eyes peeled for the beautiful, gothic-looking, marsh fritillary, which has seen localised reintroductions in the area.


Finally, some of our most abundant butterflies are part of the Brown family. Meadow browns occur in large numbers in summer, sometimes alongside their smaller, more orange cousins, gatekeepers. There’s also the inconspicuous-looking small heath to remember.

Meadow brown butterfly
Meadow brown butterfly
Gatekeeper butterfly
Gatekeeper butterfly
small heath butterfly
Small heath butterfly

The marbled white is a striking black and white chequered butterfly which also occurs in large numbers in summertime.

marbled white
Marbled white: a striking black and white chequered butterfly

The speckled wood is a brown butterfly with dappled, pale patches, which enjoys sunlit areas of woodland.

You might also find a ringlet, which is a dark brown, almost black, butterfly with concentric circles which give it its name.

speckled wood
Speckled wood: a brown butterfly with dappled, pale patches
Ringlet butterfly
Ringlet: dark brown butterfly with concentric circles

Read the first part of Thomas’ focus on butterflies and, in another blog, his guide for identifying the ‘Big 8’ of bumblebee species.

Find out about National Nature Reserves in the Solent area where you’ll see an abundance of butterflies this summer.