Small Blue

The Small Blue butterfly is the smallest species of butterfly in Ireland and also has quite a restricted range, only being found in certain areas across the country.

Can you see it? The Small Blue certainly is tiny, so even if you are in an area where it’s found you might not spot it straight away – Oisín Duffy

As mentioned above, the Small Blue is Ireland’s smallest butterfly species, with a wingspan range of only 20-30mm. Its small size is one of the key identification features as even though the other species of blue butterfly are not large, then are much bigger than the Small Blue. Unlike the name suggests, the Small Blue is not so much blue but a silvery to grey to charcoal ombre appearance (there will however be a slight blue appearance) with a distinctive white border.

The topside of the Small Blue, the blue colour is most concentrated nearest the body and grows to a deep grey, dark silver colouration, the white fringing around the wings is very noticeable in the above picture – Oisín Duffy

The underside of the species is also rather silvery in colour, ranging from a light grey to a very pale blue. Black markings are present throughout the underwing, but similarly to the Holly Blue there are no orange markings anywhere on the wing.

Blue colour is most prominent on near the body on the underside also, with the colour changing to a light grey or silver, black markings are present, but notice how there is no orange markings like the Common Blue – Oisín Duffy

The species is not common and is only found in certain areas throughout the country, mainly associated with coastal grassland, but is also found in a few inland sites and of course the Burren, Co. Clare.

Head on shot of a Small Blue, its dark colour and white fringing are once again very noticeable here, and the surrounding grains of sand and strands of vegetation give a good sense of scale – Oisín Duffy

The larval foodplant of the Small Blue is Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulenaria) which is a member of the pea family. This species is distinctive with multiple yellow flowering heads packed into one plant, the leaves of the plant also have a unique downy silvery appearance. This species is very easy to find in coastal locations.

Kindey Vetch (Anthyllis vulenaria) the foodplant of the Small Blue – Oisín Duffy
Small Blue on its larval foodplant Kidney Vetch – Oisín Duffy

Cheat Sheet – (TLDR Version):

Name: Small Blue (Cupido minimus)

Larval Foodplant: Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)

Distribution: Restricted range throughout the country, few inland sites, more often found in coastal locations and the Burren.  (This is a species you will probably have to travel to see and even then, due to its small size, could be hard to find).

When: From May to June.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about butterflies why not take part in the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, the national scheme for recording and monitoring butterfly species in Ireland.

If anyone out there has any questions or suggestions regarding this piece or maybe regarding future pieces, feel free to get in touch through Twitter.

Holly Blue

The Holly Blue is a beautiful and delicate species of butterfly, it is not as common as the Common Blue Butterfly, but is also a high flying species, which may contribute to a lack of records.

The beautiful and highflying Holly Blue – Oisín Duffy

The Holly Blue is another small species (35mm wing span) and is quite similar to the Common Blue, although in my experience Holly Blues have a habit of being slightly smaller. The species has a beautiful blue colouration on the topside of the wings and distinctive black wing tips, the female of the species has much more prominent black wing tips, while the males are very subtle, almost an edging.

Topside of the Holly Blue – Oisín Duffy

The underside of the Holly Blue is a powdery baby blue colour, almost ranging into silver and has a number of black spots. The main difference between the Holly Blue and the Common Blue comes from the underside. While the Common Blue has elaborate orange marking along the wing margin, the Holly Blue has no orange at all. If you’re lucky enough to get the species to sit, then this should be very noticeable. It’s also very worthwhile looking up (above head height) as this is the preferred flying area for the Holly Blue.

Underside of the Holly Blue, notice how there’s no orange markings, which is a distinguishing feature in comparison to the Common Blue – Oisín Duffy

The distribution of the Holly Blue has a slight south easterly leaning. It is however also found in Clare and Galway and many other counties. Lack of habitat may be one of the reasons why the distribution appears so limited or perhaps the elusive nature of the butterfly means that it is under recorded. It can be found in woodlands, hedgerows and sometimes even gardens.

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) – Oisín Duffy

The larval foodplant of the Holly Blue is split between two plant species, Holly (Ilex aquifolium) and Ivy (Hedera helix), other plants can also be used. In Spring, Holly is chosen and by the time the next brood comes to lay eggs they will be looking for Ivy. This can explain why they are flying noticeably higher than some of our other native species of butterflies. If your larval foodplant is up high you’ll need to fly high to lay eggs and find potential mates.

Ivy (Hedera helix) – Oisín Duffy

Cheat Sheet – (TLDR Version):

Name: Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus)

Larval Foodplant: Holly (Ilex aquifolium) and Ivy (Hedera helix)

Distribution: Scattered distribution throughout the country, slightly more common in south and east of the country (but does occur elsewhere), may be under recorded due to its highflying nature.

When: From April to May and then again from July to September.

If you’re interested in learning more about butterflies why not take part in the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme, the national scheme for recording and monitoring butterfly species in Ireland.

If anyone out there has any questions or suggestions regarding this piece or maybe regarding future pieces, feel free to get in touch through Twitter.

Common Blue

Ireland has three blue butterfly species, the Common Blue (which we’ll be looking at in this post) the Holly Blue and Ireland’s smallest butterfly the aptly named Small Blue.

These species are quite distinctive, once you get your eye in, however if you see them in flight or even flick through an ID book you may be thinking that they all look rather alike. Over the next few weeks I’ll be covering the other two blue species, but this will be mainly focused on the Common Blue.

Male Common Blue sharing Fleabane with a hoverfly – Oisín Duffy

The Common Blue is a beautiful and small butterfly (35mm wing span). This notably is smaller than any of the other species we have looked at so far. The names for this particular set of blue butterflies is actually quite useful, as the common blue (in my experience) is the most common of the species, the others require looking up and visiting particular sites (I’ll get to those in future weeks).

Male Common Blue showing beautiful blue colouration on the top side of the wings – Oisín Duffy

There a great difference between the male and female in this species, the male being blue on the topside, while the female is much more brown in appearance (a small bit of blue is generally present close to the body), but the majority of the wings are brown with orange markings near the edges of the wings. This difference is more subtle on the underside, but the female does appear more brown compared to the silvery/grey of the male.

Underside of a Male Common Blue, this one has a slight tear on the hindwing, but the silvery/grey colouration is very noticeable – Oisín Duffy
Underside of a Female Common Blue, compared to the picture of the male above, this underside is much darker and brown in colour – Oisín Duffy

The underside is festooned with markings, some white, some black with white margins and distinctive orange blotches curved around the hind wing, this also extends onto the forewing also, but is very subtle in the male and very strong in the female.

If you see orange marking on the underside of the blue butterfly you’re looking at (in Ireland) then you can be confident it is a Common Blue – Oisín Duffy

The species is generally found in grasslands, but can also turn up in parklands and even wasteground. The larval foodplant of the species is Bird’s-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) a common plant in the pea family. Bird’s Foot Trefoil is also a foodplant for a number of other butterfly species as well as being an excellent food source for other pollinators.

Common Blue on its larval foodplant Bird’s-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) – Oisín Duffy

Cheat Sheet (TLDR Version):

Name: Common Blue (Polyommatus Icarus)

Larval Foodplant: Bird’s-Foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

Distribution: Throughout most of the country, although there are some gaps (Central North of the country).

When: From May all the way through September.

Painted Lady

The Painted Lady is a migrant species of butterfly that travels from as far away as Morocco. On some occasions we can get a great influx of the species, with it being found throughout the country, while other years you may be lucky to see one or two, if any. The number that we see is generally linked to conditions in the country of origin, amount of foodplants available, winds etc.

It certainly is a rather attractive butterfly and while at rest does not look much like any of our other species, and can sometimes be mistaken for others in flight. The species is relatively large, noticeably larger than a Small Tortoiseshell, but again when some of these species are flying past and you only get a glance, it can be difficult to be certain of your sighting.

Painted Lady – From Tory Island, Co. Donegal. Showing the topside of the wing, you can clearly see the black wing tips with white mottling. Oisín Duffy
Painted Lady – From Tory Island, Co. Donegal. Showing the topside of the wing, you can clearly see the black wing tips with white mottling. Oisín Duffy

Waiting till the species is nectaring or basking, can take patience, but is a good method for getting a closer look. Of course you can also choose to catch the butterfly in a net and then identify it, if you need a better look at the species you can always put it in a container (a small amount of toilet paper in the container will mean that the species will “walk” rather than “fly” around it). The benefit to placing toilet paper in is that it will allow you to get a better look at the species and also keep the individual from battering it’s wing scales all off the sides of the container (butterflies, along with moths, make up a family called lepidoptera, which comes from Greek meaning something along the lines of “wings of scales” or “scaled wings”. This is why if you have ever picked up or moved a dead butterfly or moth you will notice a “dusting” on your hands or fingers, this is in fact numerous scales from their wings).

Painted Lady nectaring on Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) – Oisín Duffy
Painted Lady nectaring on Common Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) – Oisín Duffy

The species itself is mainly orange with black markings and distinctive black wing tips with white mottling. Unlike the last few species we’ve covered, the Painted Lady actually has a conventionally interesting underside. Chequered and mottled with beautiful sandy browns and white, with subtle eyespots along the underside of the hindwing. This underside can make it difficult to see on stone as it blends in quite well.

Close-up of the underside of a Painted Lady, this particular individual was very hard to see from a distance and taking the picture involved lying prone on an old railway track – Oisín Duffy
Close-up of the underside of a Painted Lady, this particular individual was very hard to see from a distance and taking the picture involved lying prone on an old railway track – Oisín Duffy

The Painted Lady can be found in a number of habitats, it is a migratory species making a journey from as far away as Morocco. The South-East and East Coast of Ireland seem like good spots to get your first glimpse during a Painted Lady year but luckily they don’t stop there, the species will travel throughout the country from these locations. I even spotted a number of Painted Lady’s on Tory Island this Summer during Ireland’s Island BioBlitz.

The Painted Lady does not overwinter in Ireland, but the main foodplants for this species are Thistles. It’s another case of beautiful butterfly species coming from rather humble roots, Thistles and Nettles (foodplants for the last three species we covered) aren’t often highly thought of by gardeners or homeowners, but are great for pollinator species.

 

Cheat Sheet (TLDR Version):

Name: Painted Lady (Cynthia cardui)

Larval Foodplant: Thistles – But does not overwinter in Ireland.

Distribution: Common and widespread – during Painted Lady years.

When: Generally start from the end of May / early June and can be seen on the wing all the way till the end of September into early October.

 

If anyone out there has any questions or suggestions regarding this piece or maybe regarding future pieces, feel free to get in touch through Twitter.

Peacock

The Peacock Butterfly is one of our most distinctive butterfly species, it is large and brightly coloured and once seen, it is not easily forgotten. This species follows on from the last two in that they are all in the Vanessids family.

The Peacock can be found in a wide range of habitats, from gardens, meadows and parkland, woodland rides and even wasteground.

A beautifully posed Peacock butterfly showing those distinctive eyespots, this particular individual looks very fresh and is in pristine condition – Oisín Duffy
A beautifully posed Peacock butterfly showing those distinctive eyespots, this particular individual looks very fresh and is in pristine condition – Oisín Duffy

The species is large and very colourful, one of the most noticeable things about the Peacock are the large eyespots on its wings. These are used as a defence mechanism against predators, as the eyes are quite large they serve the purpose of putting off would-be threats, especially when the wings are opened at the last minute. The eyespots are iridescent blue in colour on the hindwing, while the blue slowly fades to a reddish yellow colour on the forewing. The overall colour of the species is a deep red.

The underside of the species is rather unremarkable, however there is a good reason for this. Having a dull underside colour, like that of a dead leaf, means that hibernating as an adult throughout the winter is a lot less risky (as you can blend in much better).

The rather uninteresting underside of the Peacock, nectaring on a white form of Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) – Oisín Duffy
The rather uninteresting underside of the Peacock, nectaring on a white form of Creeping Thistle (Cirsium arvense) – Oisín Duffy

There is no other species in Ireland which looks quite like a Peacock butterfly and once you get your eye in, you’ll never forget it.

The foodplant for this species, like the Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral is Nettle (Urtica diocia). This once again brings up the importance of so-called “weeds”. Larval foodplants may not always be the most conventionally pretty plants, but their function is so much more important than their form. The caterpillars are small, black and spiny and have a number of white spots as they mature.

Close up of the Peacock, a small bit of the forewing are visible along with the closest underside wing. The eyes of this species are spectacular also – Oisín Duffy
Close up of the Peacock, a small bit of the forewing are visible along with the closest underside wing. The eyes of this species are spectacular also. – Oisín Duffy

Cheat Sheet (TLDR Version):

Name: Peacock (Inachis io)

Laraval Foodplant: Nettle (Urtica diocia)

Distribution: Common and Widespread

When: Generally from April right through the season till September. (Since this species overwinters in Ireland, you may even come across it earlier or later in the year than listed above).

If anyone out there has any questions or suggestions regarding this piece or maybe regarding future pieces, feel free to get in touch through Twitter.

Red Admiral

The Red Admiral butterfly is perhaps one of the best known species, even if people haven’t seen the species, most will recognise the name. The species also follows on nicely from our last profile on the Small Tortoiseshell, both of these species (and others which will be mentioned in the coming weeks/months) are part of the Vannesids family.

A beautiful fresh example of a Red Admiral, showing that the undersides of butterflies can be even more interesting than the top – Oisín Duffy
A beautiful fresh example of a Red Admiral, showing that the undersides of butterflies can be even more interesting than the top – Oisín Duffy

The Red Admiral can be found in a wide range of habitats from woodlands to gardens and even wastegrounds. It is a migrant species, but within the last five years it has been found to overwinter in Ireland. Identification for this species in Ireland is relatively simple as the only species which could possibly cause confusion is the Painted Lady (another member of the Vannesids and another migratory species, but generally rarer).

The butterfly has dark brown velvet like wings with orange banding. On the topside of the forewing the wings darken from brown (closest to the body, up until the orange banding) to a black with minor white marking (small bands and dots). The top side of the hindwings are generally a more uniformed brown colour and are fringed with a thick orange band (with black dots).

Topside of the Red Admiral, showing black wing tips with white markings or mottling. Orange markings on both forewings and hindwings are usually very noticeable – Oisín Duffy
Topside of the Red Admiral, showing black wing tips with white markings or mottling. Orange markings on both forewings and hindwings are usually very noticeable – Oisín Duffy

The underside of the species is also quite beautiful and interesting, I find the orange band tends to appear more of a red colour on the underside and there is also hints of a velvety blue colour which are close to the body.  The white marks on the forewing again appear very distinctive as they contrast with the general dark coloured underside.

A slightly worn Red Admiral, but still showing an interesting underside and one which is very distinctive when seen at rest – Oisín Duffy
A slightly worn Red Admiral, but still showing an interesting underside and one which is very distinctive when seen at rest – Oisín Duffy

The Red Admiral, similarly to the Small Tortoiseshell has Nettle (Urtica diocia) as its main larval foodplant. This species also creates a web like tent for protection while feeding and can at times appear somewhat similar to larva of the Small Tortoiseshell. Red Admiral larva generally go through a number of colour changes from black to pale green.

Cheat Sheet (TLDR Version):

Name: Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Laraval Foodplant: Nettle (Urtica diocia)

Distribution: Common and Widespread

When: Generally from May right through the season till September. (Since this species has now been found to overwinter in Ireland, you may even come across it earlier or later in the year than listed above).

If anyone out there has any questions or suggestions regarding this piece or maybe regarding future pieces, feel free to get in touch through Twitter.

Small Tortoiseshell

There are over 30 species of butterfly found in Ireland, some which carry out their full life cycle here and others which migrate. As with many other taxonomic groups there are some species which have restricted ranges, others which occur at lower densities and then some that are quite elusive.

The Small Tortoiseshell is a common and widespread species of butterfly in Ireland and can be found in a range of habitats, including gardens, parklands and even wasteground. Identification is generally rather easy in Ireland as there are no confusion species. The forewings and hindwings both orange in colour with mottled black markings, which occur along the top fringe and middle portion on the forewing and spreading out from the main body in the hindwings. A black fringing interjected with blue marking is also a characteristic feature and this also occurs on both forewing and hindwing. The blue markings are extremely distinctive when the individual is fresh. The underside of the species is rather dull and is mainly a brown/black colour and if not basking can easily be mistaken for a leaf.

The blue dotted fringe is a distinctive and characteristic feature of the Small Tortoiseshell – Oisín Duffy
The blue dotted fringe is a distinctive and characteristic feature of the Small Tortoiseshell – Oisín Duffy
You can see in the above picture that the dull colours of the underwing would allow it to blend in with dead leaves and twigs – Oisín Duffy
You can see in the above picture that the dull colours of the underwing would allow it to blend in with dead leaves and twigs – Oisín Duffy

The larval foodplant (the plant in which eggs are laid and then eaten by the hatched caterpillars) is Nettle (Urtica diocia). The caterpillars of this species have developed a defence mechanism to allow for a better chance of survival, this includes weaving a silken like web or tent to stop or at least hinder predation. The caterpillars are small and black when first hatched but eventually grow larger, without too much other change to their outward appearance.

How small is small? – Two butterflies Small Copper (Left) and Small Tortoiseshell (Right) both feeding on Ragwort – Oisín Duffy
How small is small? – Two butterflies Small Copper (Left) and Small Tortoiseshell (Right) both feeding on Ragwort – Oisín Duffy

The species can be commonly seen in a variety of different habitats and areas across the country but can also be encountered nearer to winter, when it may fly into houses as a means to find a suitable hibernation spot. Unfortunately hibernating in a house is not the greatest idea as there can be great fluctuations in temperature (just think of how much heating and cooling goes on in a house during that period). If you come across a hibernating butterfly in house (which is likely to be a small tortoiseshell) you can move it to an outside shed/garage (if you have one) or even keep it in a shoebox and put it in a cold room. The temperature here will be much more constant than in your house and the butterfly will be able to hibernate properly rather than waking up and moving around when there is a dramatic temperature change in your house.

Small Tortoiseshell getting its fill, you can see the proboscis relatively clearly in this picture – Oisín Duffy
Small Tortoiseshell getting its fill, you can see the proboscis relatively clearly in this picture – Oisín Duffy

Cheat Sheet (TLDR Version):

Name: Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) – Scientific names can often give a lot of information about the species you are looking at, for the small tortoiseshell Aglais refers to its overall genus while urticae pertains to its foodplant.

Larval Foodplant: Nettle (Urtica diocia).

Distribution: Common and Widespread.

When: Generally from April to September (although as mentioned above you may find one in your house over the winter).

If anyone out there has any questions or suggestion regarding this piece or maybe regarding future pieces, feel free to get in touch through Twitter.