Welcome to my Identification Guide to the ‘Brown’ Butterflies. Most of these species are emerging in numbers now and will be seen flitting over meadows, along hedgerows and sunny woodland rides.
We’ll look at seven lowland species: Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Wall Brown, Ringlet, Grayling, Small Heath and Speckled Wood. All are reasonably common and widespread, although the Grayling and Wall Brown have a more limited distribution.
As with all wildlife spotting, a combination of factors form clues to identification:
Relative Size – comparison with any familiar nearby butterflies.
Upperwing Colour – not always apparent especially in species like the Grayling which seldom reveals its upper wing surface.
Underwing Markings – a very important feature since this is almost always visible.
Habitat – butterflies do wander around, but some prefer particular habitats which can be a useful guide.
Flight Period – most will fly during the main summer months, but e.g. the Speckled Wood, will be active much earlier during spring than others.
Use this guide and others in this series to help you with the Big Butterfly Count held until 9th August 2020 (dates will vary year by year). You can find out how to take part by clicking here. At other times make all your records count by logging your sightings on an easy to use app downloadable from Butterfly Conservation.
There are many potential points of confusion between these various species, but I have tried to simplify the comparisons in terms of the likelihood of encountering each species. In this sense the first three species are much more likely to be seen on a stroll along a country lane or across a meadow and are all far more numerous that the others. Ok then, let’s get started.
Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper (Hedge Brown). These are very common species which can be encountered along hedgerows, embankments, meadows and gardens just about anywhere in the county. If there are flowering brambles in the vicinity during July and August it’s a fair bet these butterflies will take advantage of the food source. They are superficially similar, although the Meadow Brown is the larger of the two and is much browner in general appearance. Both species will openly bask on vegetation when the key identification points can be brought into play. Even when actively feeding with wings closed, the underside of each species has unique features that will clinch identity. Males and females differ slightly and we can look at those quite easily.
Meadow Brown – male. A predominantly brown butterfly about the size of a Small Tortoiseshell. Points to note are: 1) Eyespot with a single white dot in the centre, 2) Faint orange markings below eye-spot, and 3) Subdued dark smudge denoting the sex brand or scent mark.
Gatekeeper – male. A compact, brightly coloured butterfly about 2/3 size of the Meadow Brown. Specific points: 1) Obvious eye-spot with a double white dot, 2) Bright orange patches on both upper and lower wings, and 3) Prominent very dark sex brands.
Meadow Brown – female. Slightly larger than the male and more brightly coloured. Key points: 1) Prominent ‘double’ eye-spots with a white spot in each, 2) Bright orange patch surrounding and below eye-spots, and 3) Plain brown underwing
Gatekeeper – female. Similar to the male. Key differential features are: 1) Single eye-spot with two white spots therein, 2) Plain orange upper and lower wing with a wide brown border.
Quite often you will be confronted with a feeding insect which will shuffle around flower heads sipping nectar. In these circumstances you may not be able to get a good look at the upper wing, so we will need to note the key differences of the under wing. 1) Meadow Brown has a single white dot in its black eye-spot, whereas Gatekeeper has two white dots (beware that some female Meadow Browns show a double white spot, but the following points will help differentiate them). 2) Meadow Brown hindwing underside is a two-tone russet and brown/grey colouration , much like the colouration of an autumn leaf. The Gatekeeper has a darker ground colour to the hindwing and will always show a much lighter vertical line bisecting areas of mid-brown and extending 2/3 way down the wing. Finally, 3) the Meadow Brown sometimes shows small black spots on the hindwing, whereas the Gatekeeper always shows a series of small, black-ringed white spots.
Of course not all encounters end happily! This female Meadow Brown blundered into a garden spider web and was swiftly dealt with.
Another common brown butterfly is the Ringlet. This insect can be found in the same habitat as the Meadow Brown and Gatekeeper but also prefers damper and shadier habitats. It is a butterfly that really is a uniform, velvety dark brown colour, but on closer inspection will show the most wonderful array of ringed spots, hence its name.
The male upper wing has 1) very small, hardly discernible, dark spots set against 2) warm chocolate brown fore and hind wings. The female has 1) obvious yellow ringed black spots with a small white central dot, and 2) the overall ground colour is a couple of shades lighter.
The underside of both sexes are similar, but in the male 1) the base colour is quite dark and 2) the rings are slightly smaller. The female shows 1) a lighter brown base colour with 2) bolder, larger rings.
The difference in overall tone and size of ring spots is clearly shown on this mating pair. Female (top), male (bottom)
Now we will move onto another pair of species that can cause confusion, the Wall Brown and the Speckled Wood. The Wall is a species in general decline, although it is holding its own in Norfolk where populations show a bias towards coastal habitats of short grassland and dunes. The species gets it name from a habit of basking in the open on walls, rocks, fences and suchlike. It is double-brooded flying between May and September although late June and the early part of July is the period between broods when few will be seen. The Speckled Wood is a species that can be found in dappled sunshine within woodland rides, mature hedgerows and well established gardens. Its fortunes are in direct contrast to the Wall, in that it has increased its range and abundance greatly over the past 30 years so that it can now be found all over the county where its preferred habitat occurs. It too has a protracted flight season with insects on the wing from April to October with a peak emergence during July.
Both species are of similar size and have 1) eye spots on fore wing and hind wing which are black with small central white spots, however the differing base colour of the wings which in Wall is bright orange and in Speckled Wood chocolate brown makes them far more obvious in the former species. 2) Wall Brown has a matrix of dark brown markings giving a series of compartments of 3) a bright orange base colour, whereas Speckled Wood has 2) cream spots against 3) an otherwise uniform base colour of chocolate brown. Note: the images are both male, but there is very little difference between the sexes except the male Wall Brown has a prominent sex brand also highlighted as 2) above which is absent in the female.
The underside of the forewing of both species 1) broadly follows the same patterning as the upper side, i.e. Wall Brown with brown-bordered orange panels and Speckled Wood with cream spots against a brown base colour. The underside of the hindwing 2) is markedly different with Wall showing an intricate marbling of grey, browns and orange whilst Speckled Wood shows blotches of cream and brown interspersed with one or two jagged dark lines.
If you find yourself on areas characterised by low grassy sward, such as heaths, dune systems or cliff tops, you may come across a small orange butterfly that flies up from your feet, travels a short distance, lands and virtually disappears. This will probably be a Small Heath. You will not see this insect basking and will only ever get a look at the underside which is very similar to the underside of a Gatekeeper. The diminutive size of the Small Heath should be enough to identify it, but certain features are 1) black eye-spot ringed with buff and containing a single white dot, 2) light grey wing margins, and 3) lighter vertical line is jagged and only extends half way down hind wing. The Small Heath has several broods during the season and a consequential extended flight period between May and September
Another confusion species is the Grayling . This butterfly is not very common and is unlikely to be encountered away from its preferred habitat of dry, sandy heath and coastal dunes. It has a very limited distribution in Norfolk with highest densities around the north and east coasts and in Breckland, although I have had one in my garden at Sprowston, which goes to show that a wind-blown individual can turn up anywhere. It has a remarkable courtship display, which I documented in an article for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, you can read it here. Graylings are on the wing between July and September with a peak in late July and August. They are cryptically camouflaged, rendering them almost invisible at rest. As with the small heath, you are very unlikely to get a glimpse of the upper side, so will need to carefully approach a resting insect and note the key identification points:
1) Black eye-spots on underside of forewing with small white dot. There are 2 eye-spots, but the butterfly quite often rests with the forewing tucked behind the hindwing which obscures the smaller spot. 2) On the male in particular there is a narrow pale band running across the forewing. The band is not well shown in the image, but in the field can be much more obvious, and 3) an intricate mottled grey and brown patterning which enables it to blend in well with its surroundings.
Just to show how well camouflaged a Grayling can be, this is the normal, uncropped, image
I hope this all helps! Looking at images can make things seem simple, but when faced with a moving small insect it can get more challenging. However, if you get the basics into your memory: relative size, basic colouration, habitat, flight period, it will give you a good starting point. Get out there and have a look for these lovely creatures. Once you know what they are you will want to know more, and that’s the beginning of a long term love affair with nature. Happy butterfly spotting, and don’t forget to make your records count by submitting them to Butterfly Conservation.