Meet The Skippers – A Photographic Guide To Skipper Identification

Essex Skipper butterfly female basking in evening light

Ssshh! Don’t tell the Essex Skippers, we’re in Norfolk…

Large skipper butterfly nectaring on creeping thistle flower
Large skipper butterfly nectaring on creeping thistle flower

These charming, vivid orange little butterflies have extended their range recently and seem perfectly happy living two counties further North than their namesake county. At this time of year they can readily be seen “skipping” amongst the hedgerow flowers and meadow grasses of East Anglia alongside their similar looking cousins, the Small Skippers and Large Skippers, sometimes in the company of the larger meadow  species such as Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper and Ringlet butterflies.

All three of our most common Skipper butterflies are small, similarly coloured and rather flighty, in fact the Essex Skipper and Small Skipper look so alike that the Essex Skipper was only recognised as a separate butterfly species in 1889. So just how do you tell these three oft-seen Skipper butterfly species apart?

Get a Mug Shot

The surest way to tell the three most common Skipper butterflies apart is to get a photo or good look of the underside of the tips of the butterfly’s antennae. The Essex Skipper has very distinctive, inky black antenna tips; whereas the similarly sized Small Skipper has orange-brown coloured antennae tips. Although the Large Skipper also has black tips, the antennae ends are more bulbous than those of the Essex and Small Skipper (which are stubby) and have twirly pointed tips.

The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
The Small Skipper butterfly has orange antennae tips
The Small Skipper butterfly has orange antennae tips
Essex Skipper on hedge woundwort
The Essex Skipper’s black antennae tips are rounded
The Large Skipper has black pointed antennae tips
The Large Skipper has black pointed antennae tips

Skippers are territorial, living in colonies and can be quite confiding little butterflies when perching or basking. However, as their name suggests,they do have a frustrating habit of zooming vertically off their perch at the slightest movement and skipping off before we get the viewing angle we want, so here are some other perspectives and identification tips.

Skipper Butterflies In Profile

The Large Skipper’s chequered pattern is visible with its wings closed so should be readily distinguishable when perching or roosting. Essex and Small Skippers are harder to identify in profile as neither have distinguishing marks on their underwings and they are of a very similar size. However, according to Lewington and other field guides, the Essex Skipper’s undersides are more straw-coloured than those of the Small Skipper, which may appear more beige or buff. Be cautious if using this to distinguish the Essex and Small Skipper, as the look of the underwing can be affected by light conditions and indvidual variations.

Essex Skipper has a more straw-coloured underwing than the Small Skipper
The Essex Skipper has a more straw-coloured underwing than the Small Skipper
Large skipper has checkered markings also visible in profile
Large skipper has checkered markings also visible in profile
Small skippers' underwings are more beige in colour
Small skippers’ underwings are more beige in colour

 

“Check” out their Wing Markings

The Large Skipper is most readily identifiable from its chequered pattern wing markings. As well as being larger, Large Skipper butterflies appear brighter and more robust than then smaller Essex and Small Skipper butterflies. In contrast both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have relatively plain orange wings. Male Small and Essex skippers can be distinguished from each other by their sex bands (see more below). Female are trickier but one other clue to aid separation, though not always a reliable indicator, is that in Essex Skippers sometimes the dark wing edging bleeds up more heavily into the wing veins.Below are two Essex Skipper photos, one with the dark banding radiating into the veins, one without.

Small Skipper butterfly has plain wings when viewed side on
Small Skipper has plain wings viewed side on
Small skipper butterfly basking with wings open
Small skipper butterfly basking with wings open
Large Skipper butterfly's chequered wing markings from side on as it drinks nectar with its proboscis
Large Skipper’s chequered wing markings from side on as it drinks nectar with its proboscis
Large Skipper's contrasting chequered markings make it the easiest of the three most common skipper butterflies to identify
Large Skipper’s contrasting chequered markings make it the easiest of the three most common skipper butterflies to identify
Essex skipper female, sometimes the dark borders radiate along the veins. Essex skipper nectaring on field scabious
Essex skipper female on field scabious, sometimes the dark borders radiate along the veins
Essex Skipper butterfly female basking in evening light
Essex Skipper basking in evening light

Use Wing Bands to Identify Male Essex Skippers and Small Skippers

All three male Skipper butterflies have a black gender or scent band line marking on their front wings which can be a particularly helpful additional aid to distinguishing an Essex Skipper from a Small Skipper butterfly if you’re unable to view them head on. The male Small Skipper has a prominent black gender band that is long and curved whereas the Essex Skipper’s gender band is much less conspicuous, short, straigt and runs parallel to the edge of its forewing.  The male Large Skippers also have very prominant gender bands and at a distance, when fresh from emergence, might even potentially be confused with Gatekeepers due to their vivid orange colour.

Male Small Skipper has a longer, curved, more prominent gender band
Male Small Skipper has a longer, curved, more prominent gender band
Essex skipper (male) on grass stalk landscape
Male Essex Skipper has a short, straight, sex band parallel to the wing edge

Non Visual Characteristics Can also Eliminate a Suspect

Distribution

Both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have expanded their ranges northwards. The Essex Skipper is still the more south-easterly of the two species, being seen as far north as the Humber and west to the Severn Estuary. The Small Skipper, like the Large Skipper can be seen even in Wales and Cornwall and as far north as Northumberland recently.

Flight Times

The Large Skipper is the early bird of the three, flying from late May, peaking  in mid July and ending in late August. The Small appears next, flying from early June until early September. The Essex Skipper has the narrowest flight period, being seen on the wing from the end of June until the end of August.

Host Plants

All three species are single brooded and feed on various grasses such as Yorkshire-fog (Small Skipper), Creeping Soft-grass (Essex and Small Skippers) and Cock’s foot (Large Skipper). Early stage larvae overwinter in the sheaths of long grasses and winter cutting and “tidying” can negatively affect populations. For more information visit www.butterfly-conservatin.org

Resources

Butterfly Conservation Society –  Species Information and Factsheets:

R Lewington – Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland

All images taken by and © Kiri Stuart-Clarke. All rights reserved

The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
The Essex skipper butterfly has black antennae tips
Large skipper perched on reeds
Large skipper perched on reeds
small skipper climbing grass stalk
small skipper climbing grass stalk
Essex skipper on hedge woundwort
Essex skipper on hedge woundwort