Although there are still some limits for going out and enjoying nature during the coronavirus pandemic, there are plenty of species to look out for in your garden and further afield.
Marsh fritillary butterfly (Euphydrayas aurinia)
Sailing low over a flowery meadow or hillside in hot June sun, this is one of our most impressive butterflies. Its stunning chequered wings, resplendent in orange, yellow and brown, look like miniature stained-glass windows. However, the fritillary family are known for being as fussy as they are fabulous. As Britain’s farming landscapes have changed beyond recognition since World War II, such picky habitat preferences have often translated into dramatic losses. The marsh fritillary (here seen on a spotted heath orchid) is now a great rarity.
This lovely insect needs lush grasslands where a patchwork of tussocky grass has been grazed by cattle to differing heights, with plenty of flowers such as buttercups and thistles. There must also be devil’s-bit scabious, a pretty lilac flower on whose leaves the clusters of black caterpillars feed. Added to that shopping list, marsh fritillaries seldom wander far – even a road or hedgerow can act as a barrier. Many colonies are today isolated and inbred as a result. Nature-friendly farmers and volunteer surveyors have been watching over them, but many sites may go unrecorded this year due to COVID-19. The good news is that conservation work planned in Cumbria, Dartmoor, Dorset and other places, along with the launch of more rewilding projects, means the future might yet be full of fritillaries.
Learn more about UK butterflies:
- Garden butterflies to spot in spring
- Why do male butterflies chase other butterfly species?
- Why aren’t there more green butterflies?
Smooth snake (Coronella austriaca)
Compared to the grass snake and adder, our third native snake is mysterious. Small, slow, secretive and scarce, it likes to hide in dense clumps of heather. Nor is its best distinguishing feature smoothness, but rather a dark smudge on top of the head.
In summer, this snake divides its time between basking and hunting lizards, which (pretty impressively) it kills by squeezing, like a mini boa constrictor. There’s a new push to map and protect its last UK strongholds in Dorset, Hampshire and Surrey.
Great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis)
Familiar from old Constable paintings, water meadows used to provide valuable hay and grazing, but these days are few and far between. Most have long since been drained, ploughed or built on.
Great burnet is among the suite of wildflowers adapted to this fertile landscape, which floods in winter but drains fast in spring. It’s a tall plant with flowerheads like frilly, burgundy-coloured eggs. Nature reserves have the best surviving displays, though you’ll also sometimes see burnet planted in ‘prairie-style’ gardens.
Black guillemot (Cepphus grylle)
“Puffins get all the press,” observes Neil Ansell in his moving memoir The Last Wilderness, “but I have a particular fondness for the black guillemot.”
This loner is, as Ansell points out, the black sheep of its family. Whereas other auks breed on cliffs in raucous colonies, pairs of black guillemots are furtive, nesting quietly on their own among shoreline rubble. They dive for small fish in harbours and close to the coasts of Ireland and north and west Scotland – again unlike most auks, which head out to sea.
Learn more about seabirds:
- Gallery: A passion for puffins (pictured)
- Black-headed gull guide
- News (2020): Marine hotspots identified in a bid to save UK’s threatened seabirds
- News (2020): Puffins show resilience to extreme weather on the Farne Islands
Lesser stag beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus)
Many people don’t realise Britain has two stag beetles. One is spectacular and largely confined to the south-east and New Forest. Its far more widespread congener, the lesser stag beetle, is comparatively little known.
Partly this is because, while both species munch wood for years as fat grubs, before emerging in June and July, the latter spends much of its adult life underground. Still a beast of a beetle, it has dull-black (not glossy-brown) wing cases, shorter jaws and a chunkier silhouette.
Find out more about British beetles:
- Stag beetle guide
- Cockchafer guide
- Volunteer interview: Running a beetle recording scheme (pictured)
Pipistrelle bats (Pipistrellus sp.)
Most bats give birth now, almost invariably to a single pup. But next to the mother, it’s a monster. Given that common and soprano pipistrelles, Britain’s two most abundant species of bat, weigh about the same as a 20p piece, the feat is comparable to a human female giving birth to a five-year-old.
Nursing bats gather in single-sex maternity roosts, occupying buildings with warm, south- facing roofs where temperatures can exceed 30°C under the tiles or roofing felt.
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera)
Many orchids are cheats that offer no reward to pollinators. Instead, they trick male bees or flies into landing on them by copying the shape, feel and perfume of the female insects. Despite all that evolutionary effort, this particular bee orchid pollinates itself, so doesn’t need visitors anyway!
It thrives in grassy places with chalky or limy soil. Surveys for the National Plant Monitoring Scheme show that the formerly southern species is advancing north due to climate change – it’s now been recorded in Scotland.
Learn more about orchids:
- Alan Titchmarsh discusses why he loves bee orchids
- How to identify orchids (pictured)
- News (2018): Warning that many of the world’s most endangered species are being side-lined
Leopard moth (Zeuzera pyrina)
We tend to think all insects have rapid life-cycles, but these handsome moths spend two or even three years as caterpillars. The larvae bore through twigs of deciduous trees: not a very nutritious diet, hence the long wait.
Finally, the adults – which don’t feed – emerge in June and July. You might spot them using a moth trap or at the light from a window.
According to the Woodland Trust, this is one of 107 British species heavily dependent on ash that sadly may be affected by the spread of ash dieback disease.
Foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea)
Big and bold, with stately spires up to 2m high, the foxglove is that rare thing – a spectacular native flower, equally likely to be found in gardens and the wild. Unlike many other plants popular in horticulture, this beauty flourishes naturally across the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland – it’s in bloom from June until well into September.
It loves heaths and woodlands, rapidly colonising clearings where trees have fallen, as well as waste ground – the sorts of places that Richard Mabey called the ‘unofficial countryside’. It’s also one of the few wildflowers able to thrive amid dense jungles of bracken, its flower spikes rising above the canopy of bracken fronds.
As with any flower, the foxglove’s appearance reveals its pollination strategy. The magenta hue is our first clue – this is the colour, along with yellow, that is most visible to bees. The petals’ tubular shape forms a funnel, at the bottom of which lies the sweet nectar, indicating that the pollinator needs a long proboscis.
Sure enough, foxgloves are pollinated mainly by long-tongued bumblebees, such as the common carder bee and garden bumblebee. But short-tongued bees cheat by biting holes in the tubular blooms to steal the nectar.
Four-spotted chaser dragonfly (Libellula quadrimaculata)
What has six legs but can’t walk? A dragonfly! The old riddle holds true – these insects are always either perching or airborne. Chasers, as their name suggests, are fast and feisty dragonflies, zipping low over marshes, pools and ditches in hot pursuit of prey or (in the case of males) territorial rivals.
Fortunately, between aerial dogfights, they like to settle for long periods on reeds, sedges and twigs, enabling a close-up view. The four-spotted is the most common British chaser, with a compact body and two small brown spots along the edge of each wing.
Rose chafer beetle (Cetonia aurata)
Glittering in warm June sunshine, these metallic-green beetles love to bask on garden roses and hedgerow dog roses. You may spot them on other flowers too, much to the chagrin of gardeners who can’t forgive their leaf munching.
Chafers make heavy work of flying and after dark often buzz around porch and security lights. Unlike most beetles, they fly with their wing-cases lying flat – the flight wings flick out from underneath.
Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon)
Our columnist Nick Baker once described the swallowtail is the “sexiest insect in the British Isles”. To see it, make a mid-June pilgrimage to the Norfolk Broads – RSPB Strumpshaw Fen and the Wheatfen Nature Reserve are great sites.
Look for the spectacular butterflies nectaring at pink flowers, such as thistles and ragged robin. Sadly, recent research by the University of East Anglia warns that the UK’s swallowtails are at risk from climate change, so their hold here is precarious.
Thrift (Armeria maritima)
Salty sea air is the kiss of death for most plants… but not thrift. This tough-as-nails wildflower is also a metallophyte, meaning it can tolerate high levels of lead and other heavy metals. Its flattened leaves create attractive green cushions, which sprout pompom-like pink blooms on long, wiry stalks in early summer.
Thrift forms carpets on cliffs, rocky beaches and saltmarshes, especially in the north and west, and its extreme hardiness has made it a popular rockery plant.
Find out more about coastal wildlife:
- Wildlife Q&A: How does thrift survive life on salty cliffs?
- How to identify rockpool wildlife (pictured)
- Where do starfish go in winter?
Badger (Meles meles)
Light summer evenings are ideal for watching badgers, especially the cubs. Most were born underground in February, or March further north, so are now 3–4 months old. Apart from their smaller size, cubs stand out for their high spirits as they play tag near to the sett at dusk,
or romp around the family’s ‘playing tree’ – you can often spot this by the flattened earth and lack of vegetation at its base. By the month-end most young will be weaned, and as their confidence grows they spend less time with their mother, joining the clan’s other sub-adults and adults on earthworm-foraging trips.