How to identify butterflies: a quick guide

Charlotte Armitage, 29/03/2018

Eight out of our ten Nature’s Calendar butterflies are on the list for most likely butterflies to encounter in the UK, so everyone has a chance of spotting at least one species.  On Nature’s Calendar we’d like you to let us know when butterflies first emerge as live and active adults. If you see butterflies later in the season, please don’t record it as it might be this year’s offspring.

 Brimstone

Males are a bright rich yellow and cannot be easily confused with any other UK species. The females however are very pale yellow so can be confused with the large white.
Habitat: damp or dry bushy places especially associated with woodland, open grassy and rocky slopes.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter in the UK so will start to wake up from early March to late April. Please be careful that they are adults that have over wintered.

Brimstone butterfly

Brimstone (Libby Owen/WTML)

Comma

A unique butterfly with rich browns and reds on the upper side and intricate patterning on the underwing.
Habitat: woodland clearings, often in damp places.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter in the UK so will start to wake up from early March to late May. Any you see after this date are likely to be offspring.

Comma

Comma (Jane Corey/WTML)

Green veined white

White or pale yellow wings with green grey veins on the underside. Both sexes have a dark tip on the forewing. It is best to identify when the butterfly is at rest when the green-grey lines on the underwing are visible. Don’t confuse with small whites that have powder-yellow underwings.
Habitat: damp grassland and woodland rides.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter as pupae in the UK so will start to emerge from late March to May. Any you see after this are likely to be too late for our records.

Green veined white

Green veined white (WTPL)

Holly Blue

Shining, sky-blue upper-wings, the male has fine dark margins on the forewings, the female has heavy dark borders here. It is best to identify when the butterfly is at rest with the underwings visible. Underwings are pale blue with small dark spots. Don’t confuse with the common blue which has black and orange spots on the underwing.
Habitat: diverse, dry or damp bushy places usually associated with woodland clearings and margins.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter as pupae in the UK so will start to emerge from April to May. Any you see later than this will be difficult to identify as winter emergence.

Holly blue

Holly blue (WTML)

Orange tip 

Males have white wings with vivid orange wing tips with a dark spot where the orange and white meets. Females are white with black wing tips and are less often encountered. Don’t confuse this species with green-veined white or small white.
Habitat: diverse; damp meadows, marshes, dry lowland scrub, and forest clearings. Common in gardens.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter as pupae in the UK so will start to emerge from March to May, Any you see later than this will probably not be appropriate for our records.

orange tip

Orange tip (WTML)

Peacock

This is readily identifiable with its large eyespots.
Habitat: open sunny places in woodland, wooded river banks, damp meadows, fallow fields or disturbed ground.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter as adults in the UK so will start to emerge from March to early April, Adults that have over wintered here often look a bit worn.

Peacock butterfly

Peacock (Jane Corey/WTML)

Red admiral 

A large black butterfly with a flash of vivid orange-red across its forewings and around the edge of its rear wings with a splatter of white spots.
Habitats: occurs in many habitats.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter as adults in the South but will also come over as migrants to the rest of the UK. They emerge from hibernation from March and arrive as migrants from May-June.

red admiral

Red admiral (Jane Corey/WTML)

Small Tortoiseshell

Have bright orange wings with black spots.
Habitats: occurs in almost all areas containing their host plant nettles, like areas of human habitation.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter as adults in the UK and will start to wake up from late March to early April.

Small tortoiseshell (WTML)

Small white

Upper forewings are white, with grey tips to the forewing. Twin black spots are on the forewing, one spot is much less distinct in males. Under hindwings are powdered yellow. It is best to identify when the butterfly is at rest when the powdered yellow underwing is visible. Don’t confuse with green-veined whites or large whites.
Habitats: almost anywhere and particularly seem to like cabbage.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this species over winter as pupae in the UK and will start to wake up from March to early April make sure this is when you are recording.

small white

Small white (web upload/WTML)

Speckled wood

This butterfly has chocolatey-brown wings with creamy patches. Three black eye markings on hind-wing and one on the fore-wing. Underside is a patchwork of grey, cream and brown.
Habitat: deciduous, coniferous and mixed woodland.
When to record for Nature’s Calendar: this is the only UK species which over winters as larva and pupae and will start to emerge as adults from March until May.

Speckled wood

Speckled wood (web upload/WTML)

Why do we record butterflies with Nature’s Calendar

Some butterflies spend their winters in the UK as adults, so their early emergence results in early caterpillars. As many birds and animals eat caterpillars, this means they could be left hungry when they wake up from hibernation or migrate later in the year. There’s also a risk that if there’s a cold snap after the caterpillars turn into butterflies, they won’t survive.

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