Let’s talk skipper butterfly identification. It’s the time of year when butterfly activity is at its peak. Grassland butterflies will be on the wing throughout July and August and frequently accompany us on our countryside walks along woodland rides and in meadows. Quite often we will see them sipping nectar from bramble, thistle and other wild flowers even in suburban gardens and parks. But they are small, hold their wings at strange attitudes and can easily be overlooked or mistaken for moths.
The skippers are a large family of small butterflies, many of which look very similar. There are estimated to be something like 3,500 species worldwide, 46 of those can be found across Europe and a mere 8 in the UK. Of those, just 5 occur in Norfolk which is the subject area of this guide. Two of these, the grizzled and dingy skipper are butterflies in serious decline that fly earlier in spring and are limited to a small number of well watched sites. They are, as the name of one suggests, small, brownish insects (see below), that can easily be overlooked, will seldom be encountered and not something we need to trouble ourselves with here. This guide is for the casual, inquisitive, observer and therefore restricts itself to the other three bright orange species, large small and Essex skippers.
All of these three are common and widespread around the county but do take a little careful scrutiny to pin down to species, especially the small and Essex skippers which are very much alike. However, I hope that the following will prove useful and go some way towards sorting out one from the other.
Not surprisingly, this is the largest of our skippers, a relative term because none of these insects can be described as large in the conventional sense. They have a wingspan of between 30-35mm (females are a couple of mm larger than males), but at rest the wings are held at an angle making them appear much smaller. The upper side of both sexes is an overall golden ground colour, blotched with darker areas of light brown. The other two species we will look at have a much more uniform colouration (as can be seen in the featured image at the top of this post).
Large Skipper, male. Males of all these species have a dark line on the upper forewing. This is called the sex brand, or scent mark, and is responsible for emitting a chemical concoction irresistible to females, much like Brut or Lynx purports, although they never worked for me! Here you can see 1) the distinct, dark, wide and uneven sex brand and 2) the brown patterning on the edge of the wing that gives the insect a mottled appearance.
Large Skipper, female. Very similar to the male except 1) the absence of the scent mark and 2) the wings show slightly more isolated and distinct orange spots, although this does vary between individuals.
Large Skippers. All butterflies mate in this position and can be quite approachable whilst their mind is elsewhere rendering flying a cumbersome business. Here you can see 1) the light coloured spots on a pale green underside. The other two species have a uniform, unspotted underside.
Small Skipper/Essex Skipper
These small skippers have a wingspan of between 27-34mm, with the Essex skipper generally being a few mm smaller than its relative. However, this is difficult to appreciate due to the angled wing position when at rest. Both are largely plain orange insects and both can be very numerous and occupy the same area. The most reliable way of telling them apart is to look at the underside of the antennae tips, which is orange in small skipper and black in Essex skipper – often cited as looking like it has been dipped into ink. It can be a little tricky to conclusively see this, especially since the upper side of the antennae of both species can be very dark as well. Let’s have a closer look.
In the above images you can clearly see the differences on well marked individuals. There are happily a few other clues we can use:
Small Skipper, male. 1) The sex brand on small skippers is long, curved and unbroken. 2) the wing margins have a much more clearly defined black edging which does not diffuse into the rest of the wing surface.
Essex Skipper, male. Here you can see 1) the short, straight sex brand which with good views will show to be broken at the 2nd vein, although this can be difficult to see clearly. 2) outer margin diffuses along the veins and bleeds into the wing surface.
Small Skipper, female. 1) uniform colouration to upper wing and absence of the sex brand, 2) clearly defined wing margins which does not diffuse onto wing surface
Essex Skipper, female. 1) uniform colouration to upper wing absent the sex brand, 2) bold, dark wing margins which diffuse onto wing surface along veins.
Small Skippers. This courting pair clearly show the uniform and relatively clean upper wing, with 1) the long, curved sex brand of the male, and 2) clearly defined dark wing margins
This unfortunate Essex Skipper fell victim to a hungry spider – a fate awaiting many an unwary small butterfly.
I hope this helps you to feel more confident when attempting to identify these rather lovely insects. Their window on the world is very short and they will be gone by the end of August. Get out and have a look for them whilst you can. If you see some you can report them to the Norfolk branch of Butterfly Conservation who would be very happy to receive your records.
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