Most of us aren’t butterfly experts. Some of us I’m sure will still be pointing out ‘cabbage’ whites and nonspecific ‘blues’. Around this time of year birds start their moult. They lose feathers and tend to hide away in the treetops and skulk around, especially during the heat of the day. So while the sun shines and the birds are inactive, use the opportunity to improve your butterfly identification skills.
Start off close to home
The first thing to do is to find your butterflies. Before you go rushing out, try your garden. Lavenders seem to be the best bet at this time of year: our row of lavender attracts clouds of meadow browns, small tortoiseshells and small whites.
Visit a reserve
The next thing is to venture further afield in search of new species. Find a reserve near you, go walking and try to identify or photograph everything you see. Most of us can identify the common species (like Peacocks and Red Admirals) but often we’ll be thrown by a blue or a fritillary (I certainly struggle). My trick for those trickier species is to try, as hard as you can, to get two photos: an underwing shot and one of the wings open. Then, when you get home, check it against a good field guide or, if you’re stuck (or lazy), try iSpot where you can put photos and a description of the butterfly, then let other people identify it for you. Photographing butterflies is also satisfying: they will sit photogenically, on attractive flowers or lush foliage, and the results are often pleasing.
Sometimes field guides, however, can make identification more complicated. You flick through them desperately trying to find something that looks like what you saw, then find something that seems almost identical. “That’s it!” you exclaim; then you read the description only to discover that it is confined to Greece or Algeria or Turkmenistan. This is why I am a frequent user of iSpot when identifying insects.
Over the past weekend I’ve been having difficulty with the Meadow Browns on the lavender. Trying to distinguish the males and females of the species can be a challenge (females have much more orange on their upper wings, while males are more uniformly brown). They’d all make life easier if when they settled, they kept their wings open for me to study, but of course they tend to sit with their wings shut. This little identification game was further complicated when I noticed that about five of the Meadow Browns had two white spots within their ‘eye’ marking (Apical ocellus), which would make them similar to Gatekeepers. A flick through the guide helpfully highlighted the False Meadow Brown of eastern Algeria and Tunisia. Cue iSpot and within ten minutes, two experts had supported my identification of Meadow Brown and explained that they sometimes have this variant.
Enough on Meadow Browns. If you want to find something a bit more exciting then the Mendips offer many great places and many great butterflies. Draycott Sleights, Black Rock, Crook Peak, Ubley Warren, Blackmoor and Dolebury are some of my favourite spots.
My latest butterfly hunt
On a recent weekend (14th July) I set out on a walk to look for butterflies. I set out up Cheddar Gorge in the blazing sun, camera in hand. On either side of the path Meadow Browns and Ringlets flew around. But I had rarer species in mind. I was distracted for a while by a Marbled White, flapping gently across the cliff tops but it didn’t land so I left it and carried on up the Gorge to Black Rock.
Here, in the woods, I spotted a Red Admiral. Not a rare butterfly but an attractive one nonetheless. It obligingly sat in a patch of sunlight as I photographed it. A little further on the path opens up onto steep grass banks and these were absolutely covered in butterflies. A few Dark Green Fritillaries, Silver Washed Fritillaries and Marbled Whites were amongst them.
The two large Fritillaries are some jewels of the Mendips. Large, orange and intricately patterned they are truly beautiful. Silver Washed Fritillaries flit between flowers and bask on leaves in sunny glades of bramble. These showy butterflies occur in many of the wooded areas of the Mendips including Dolebury Warren and Black Down. On the walk I went on I spotted them at the entrance to the cave Read’s Cavern.
Dark Green Fritillary
My favourite butterfly of the Mendips is the Dark Green Fritillary. I first encountered this butterfly whilst walking at Cheddar Gorge last year. I have also found them in large numbers at the Ubley/Blackmoor complex. It was iSpot that helped me identify them the first time. Now I look out for their zigzag bordered wings and white spots on the underwing.
Another gem of Blackmoor and Ubley Warren is the Green Hairstreak. The males of this otherwise unassuming little species have a brilliant green underwing that makes them both beautiful and, always a bonus, easy to identify.
Not just butterflies
Butterflies are, of course, only part of what you can see. There are moths too: burnets and cinnabar are colourful, distinctive, and fly by day, so I can identify them. During these walks I have also seen various damselflies (blue tailed and banded demoiselles) and dragonflies, as well as grasshoppers and crickets (including the Great Green Bush Cricket). Another lovely species that I encountered in vast numbers were horseflies. These biting pests may be a nuisance but even they are beautiful. If you look closely at their eyes you will see a pattern of reds and greens across the multiple lenses of their compound eyes.
So far I have only skimmed the surface with regards to butterflies. I have left out blues for the time being (they still confuse me) and as for the even rarer species of the Mendips and Levels, I just haven’t seen them. When I am more competent I will try to find the Large Blue at Collard Hill. But for now I am, like most of us, still learning.
iSpot (www.ispot.org.uk) is a website that helps you to identify most species of plant or animal simply by uploading a photo.
Find out more about Somerset Wildlife Trust reserves
Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly © Dawn Porter; Peacock © Bob Hastie; Red Admiral © Bob Hastie; Meadow Brown © Bob Coyle; Ringlet © Heath McDonald | www.mendipwildlifephotography.co.uk; Marbled White © Heath McDonald | www.mendipwildlifephotography.co.uk; Dark Green Fritillary © Heath McDonald | www.mendipwildlifephotography.co.uk; Silver Washed Fritillary © Philip Precey; Green Hairstreak © Sue Crookes; Six Spot Burnet © Heath McDonald | www.mendipwildlifephotography.co.uk