Finding Butterflies & Moths

If butterflies and moths are a new interest for you then simply finding some of the them may be a bit of a challenge. While species like the Red Admiral and the Jersey Tiger pretty well thrust themselves on your attention, nowadays most species have to be sought and for a reasonable chance of success you have to think about three things – when to look, where to look and how to look. In fact, no different from looking for birds, plants or much other wildlife.

When to look

Most species have one flight period as adults, some have two, a few have three. Although the start and end of the period can be defined with moderate accuracy, weather affects the start of emergence from the pupal stage which may move forward in a warm season and back in a cold or wet one. It may also be earlier on low ground and later high up in the Mendips or on Exmoor where conditions are cooler. The Species pages give the typical fight seasons for our area.

The other thing to consider is that butterflies are much more likely to be active when its sunny and calm than when it dull or windy. Only a few, like the Ringlet, tolerate dull days and even light rain. Paradoxically, in very hot weather many species seem to be hyperactive and finding then settled for long enough to get a decent view or a photograph can be almost impossible.  

Where to look

Moths and butterflies depend on plants. Caterpillars eat them and seek concealment in them, while adults of most species utilise nectar from flowers. Some species have only one or a few caterpillar food plants so obviously you need to go where those plants occur. For example Chalkhill Blues rely on Horseshoe Vetch and nothing else.  As this plant is scarce in Somerset the dependant species are correspondingly very localised. Unfortunately, the converse is not true; there are also species that have a common foodplant or eat a wide range of plants but, for reasons we don’t yet understand, are not widespread. So while knowing the plants is important, it is as well to check the individual distribution maps on the Species pages or the Moth Group website.

How to look

Once they emerge as adults, the males of most species actively search for females and once mated the females tend to become secretive as they wait for the eggs to mature before laying. Only then do they seek the larval foodplants. Behaviour varies greatly from species to species and often the best bet is to search nectar plants as most species, though not all, spend some time taking nectar from flowers. Thistles and bramble are two kinds very much used by many species but practically any patch of flowers of whatever kind is worth checking.

Finally, it can be disconcerting when in the field to find a species new to you after much searching and realise that you have been missing it because it is much smaller than you expected. Things that look as big as a dinner plate in the book turn out to be the size of a bumblebee in the field and some of them typically fly around knee height. They are easily overlooked in consequence. But the satisfaction of finding, say, an Essex Skipper, makes the searching well worthwhile.

Ask for Help

If you find a species you can’t identify, get a photo and post it on our Facebook or Twitter sites. We hope soon that this site will also be set up to allow you to post images and seek help.

Our programme of guided walks runs from spring to autumn and visits sites where most if not all of our area’s species can be found. The walks are led by people who are very pleased to help and explain. You will find all levels of skill amongst those taking part and plenty of time to talk and take photos.

Do Please Send in Records

There are still lots of gaps in the maps of butterfly and moth distribution, especially for the commoner species that get less attention. So records of common species from your local dog-walking patch or your garden are very welcome. You can send them at any time, or save them up and pass them on at the end of the season with date seen, OS grid reference if possible (otherwise a location name) and an estimate of numbers