How to identify UK animals

Garden butterfly wings

A garden in summer should be alive with delicate butterflies of different shapes, sizes, colours and patterns all fluttering around after your flowers' sweet nectar.

While everyone should be able to instantly spot a peacock with its gaudy, bright colours and markings. Do you know your whites and your blues and what about those with eyespots?

In fact wing colour and markings are a good way to identify some common, and not so common, garden butterflies. Let us help you this summer with our table below.

Forewing colour and pattern For example Differences between similar species

Orange with dark markings

Small tortoiseshell wing

Small tortoiseshell

Small tortoiseshell (c) Conall
  • Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae): Black and yellow markings on forewing with white spot. Blue spots surround the margins.
  • Comma (Polygonia c-album): Unmistakeably ragged edges to the wings. White 'comma' shape on the brown undersides.
  • Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas): Brown margin to forewing. Brown hindwing has orange band.

Brown and orange with eyespots

Gatekeeper wing (c) Tony Mathews


Gatekeeper (c) Tony Mathews
  • Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus): Twin black eyespots on forewing have white pupils.
  • Meadow brown (Maniola jurtina): Single black eyespot on forewing with white pupil.
  • Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperantus): Various numbers of yellow ringed black eyespots with white pupils on underside.

Bright blue

Common blue wing (c) Mark and Kathy

Common blue

Common blue (c) Mark and Kathy
  • Common blue (Polyommatus icarus): Narrow black or brown margin with a white fringe.
  • Holly blue (Celastrina argiolus): Pale blue underside with small dark spots. Dark margin to forewing.
  • Adonis blue (Polyommatus bellargus): Black lines across the white wing borders create a chequered effect.

Black forewing tip with white spots

Red admiral wing (c) Andrew Cooper

Red admiral

Red admiral (c) Andrew Cooper
  • Red admiral (Vanessa atalanta): Red band on forewing with a red margin to the hindwing that also has blue spot at base.
  • Painted lady (Vanessa cardui): Rest of wing is an orange-pink colour with black markings and brown wing base.
  • White admiral (Limenitis camilla): White bands across the all blackish wings with white edging.

White with dark tip to forewing and spot

Small white (c) Hawkeye108

Green-veined white

Small white (c) Hawkeye108
  • Green-veined white (Pieris napi): Distinctive criss-cross of green veins to the underside of the hindwing.
  • Small white (Pieris rapae): Small black tip to forewings with one or two black wing spots. Wingspan to 5 cm.
  • Large white (Pieris brassicae): Wingspan to 7 cm with bigger black tip to forewing that extends down edge.

Maroon red with colourful eyespot

Peacock wing (c) Helen M Bushe


Peacock (c) Helen M Bushe

Other species you might see include:

Orange-tip: White wings with a bright orange tip to the forewing and a dark spot.

Brimstone: Bright yellow wings are unmistakeable and a hook to the tip of the forewing.

Wall brown: Similar to the gatekeeper, except the orange and brown colours are more patterned.

Other tips for the garden

Of course colouring and markings are just one way to identify butterflies, there are other things to look out for that can aid identification:

Wing shape: Wings can be broad and narrow or just rounded, also look at the wing edges, are they jagged or angular?

Size: Is a useful way of telling the difference between similar looking species, for example, the best way of identifying a small and large white is by size.

Resting position: Butterflies frequently fold their wings above their backs exposing the underside. Moths, on the other hand, usually rest with wings spread out to the sides.

For more comprehensive and interactive identification guides there are these from Butterfly Conservation and UK Butterflies. And for an instant visual guide try this one from the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey that also includes handy distribution maps.

There are also the latest observations on iSpot, an online resource for identifying and sharing nature.

Don't worry if you are without a garden as the local park or common ground will have plenty of flowers attracting butterflies.

How to attract butterflies

Butterflies are one of our most fascinating and welcome garden visitors and attracting them, to even the smallest garden, could not be easier.

There are some lovely gardening tips from Butterfly Conservation and advice on encouraging butterflies into your garden from the Royal Horticultural Society. In fact plants are great for attracting all manor of creatures and we have a top ten list of plants every wildlife garden needs.

Follow these simple hints and tips and your garden will soon be awash with movement and colour.

Despite their fluttery nature butterflies make excellent subjects for photography when feeding or resting, because of their interesting shapes, bright colours and intricate patterns. So if you want to have a go then these handy tips and tricks will help you to get the best out of your photographic equipment, whatever your level of expertise.

Want to help?

The big butterfly count is a nationwide survey to assess the health of our environment and is the world's biggest survey of butterflies.

Taking part couldn't be easier, simply count butterflies from your garden or any other place for 15 minutes during a sunny day between 20th July and 11th August. You can find out more and, when the time comes, submit your sightings on the website.

Here is how to get involved with the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme and be a part of the Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey.

If surveys are your thing, or you simply want to find out what else is available, we can show you how to do a wildlife survey and become a citizen scientist.

Test yourself

Can you now identify which butterfly has these colours and markings?

Orange colour

Orange to pink background colour

Black colour

Dark markings and forewing tip

White colour

White spots on tip of dark forewing

Our mystery butterfly species will be revealed by clicking here.

Been inspired?

Why not get outside and see how many different butterflies you can identify from their wing colour and patterns. Check out the nature activities happening near you.

Then tell us about what you have seen by joining the big Summer of Wildlife conversation with BBC Nature on Facebook and Twitter @BBCNature - #summerofwildlife

All butterfly photos used in this guide were shared with with us in the Summer of Wildlife Flickr group where you can upload yours - #seeitsnapitshareit

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