I first learned about just how tiny the differences can be between some species of butterfly when a knowledgeable neighbour, who I was walking with at the time, told me how the identification of two different types of Skipper was down to variation in the colour of their antennae tips.
The butterfly he had shown me was small and orangey brown.
I’d never really noticed them before on walks across Salisbury Plain. Flitting through the undergrowth they were easy to miss, and when you did get a better look at one, as it alighted on a flower or blade of grass, it didn’t look much like a butterfly anyway. One pair of wings was set back at an odd angle and the other pair didn’t look quite right either. You could have mistaken them for malformed moths.
If it was difficult to spot the butterfly itself, how were you supposed to differentiate between the colours of their tiny antennae tips? I remember thinking at the time “well that’s one area of wildlife identification I won’t be concerning myself with”. But then two things happened.
Firstly, I was out with the same neighbour on another day when I spotted a tiny – really tiny – butterfly in the undergrowth. He identified it as a Grizzled Skipper. This skipper didn’t seem to have its wings mixed up at all. It was simply a neat-looking little butterfly with a dark brown and off-white chequered pattern on its open wings. Before that moment I had been unaware such a tiny, perfect butterfly existed in our countryside. It was delightful.
Secondly, I bought a not too expensive zoom lens which turned out be pretty much the ideal lens for photographing butterflies – for someone on my kind of budget.
The photographs I started taking proved to be a major aid in identifying even the smallest butterflies. I could even differentiate, now and again, between Small Skippers and Essex Skippers, the two species my neighbour had mentioned which were identified by the colour of their antennae tips (the Essex Skipper has black tips, described in the books “as if someone has dipped them in ink” – a perfect description).
There’s something beguiling about a tiny Essex Skipper staring straight at you with its big dark eyes. Having started off feeling fairly indifferent about them as a group, I developed a bit of a soft spot for Skippers.