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Beginner's Guide

Learning to identify flowers, trees, birds or butterflies can be a daunting business, but this page aims to help you with insider tips and some advice about the easiest things to spot each month.

Elsewhere in this section of the site (see menu at top of page), you can find a guide to nature books - some are more useful than others for beginners - as well as a nature blog giving you a tip for this week, and a week by week tip for throughout the year. Last but not least, there are the month by month pages, describing everything you can see in the countryside at that particular time of year.

Why bother?

Birds sing, flowers look pretty – but who needs to know their names? Some people even think it is a rather sterile activity, which puts a wall between a person and their enjoyment of the countryside.

In fact, the opposite is true. I started learning flower names because one March I saw lots of a yellow flower everywhere and wondered idly what it was called (it was a lesser celandine). I then started noticing other flowers. My experience has been that the more flowers I can name, the more I see them. A country walk in spring or summer is now full of flowers that I would never have noticed a few years ago.

Knowing birdsong is equally rewarding. Instead of formless twittering, in your mind’s eye you can see chaffinches, blackbirds, great tits. Walks in February and March, when there are few other signs of spring, are transformed once you can identify the mating calls around you. And before I studied it, I never even noticed that all birdsong falls silent in August.

It takes effort

This is the bit no one wants to read. You can buy a book, you can read these tips, but the only way to learn flower names or trees or birds is to put in some effort. At the beginning, it can be particularly hard, because everything is new. As you go on, the possible identifications for a particular item start to narrow. Smartphone apps can help speed the identification process, but you still need to take the time to consult them.

You will make no progress at all if you are not prepared from time to time to stop, get the book (or app) out and look something up. Sadly, walks with groups or friends are not very conducive to this, unless your friends share your interest. Better is to do a short nature walk alone each week, or to have a target to learn one new flower or tree a week.

Getting started with flowers

Flowers are the easiest and hardest things in nature to identify. They are easy because they have distinctive colours and shapes, and they are designed to be very visible. They are hard because there are so many – you might come across hundreds of different species in a single year.

The good news is that there are a few dozen common ones that are easy to learn: see the month by month tips below.

  • When identifying flowers, it really helps to know what is in bloom that month: that can eliminate many possible matches right at the start. The single month pages in this section of the website (see menu at top of page) are designed to help you do just that.
  • Mostly all you need to do is match the flower to the picture in the book or app, but sometimes you also need to look at the leaves or other plant features. For this reason it is better to identify the flower in situ when you can see all its details. Resist the temptation to try and remember what the flower looks like and look it up later: you will often find that you are missing key details if you try to do this. Taking a photograph may help, but even then you may find crucial details are not clear.
  • Never pick flowers to identify later. It is not only illegal, but it kills that flower. Suppose everyone did it? If you don't have a camera or smartphone with you, the alternative is to do a crude sketch. Record not just the flower shape, but the number of petals, leaf shape, and if the leaves are opposite each other on the stem or alternate.

Here are a few common flowers to look out for each month:

  • JANUARY & FEBRUARY - snowdrop
  • MARCH - lesser celandine, daffodil, primrose, wood anemone
  • APRIL - as March, plus cuckoo flower, garlic mustard, stitchwort, ramsons, and of course bluebells.
  • MAY - buttercup, ox-eye daisy, red campion, cow parsley, charlock, bugle
  • JUNE - tufted vetch, foxgloves, hedge woundwort, mayweed, birdsfoot trefoil
  • JULY - rosebay willowherb, ragwort, majoram, ladies bedstraw, knapweed
  • AUGUST - yarrow, traveller’s joy, common fleabane, purple loosestrife, field scabious
  • SEPTEMBER - as August, plus michelmas daisy

Getting started with trees

You might expect that the best way to learn trees (which for this purpose also includes hedgerow bushes and shrubs) is to recognise the different shapes of their leaves. In practice, this can be quite difficult, however. True, some trees – oaks, maples – have very distinctive leaf shapes, but a surprisingly large number are not that easy for a beginner to identify.

The tip here is to use the flowers and catkins of trees in spring, and their fruit, nuts or seeds in autumn as extra clues. Hornbeam and beech, for example, have fairly similiar leaves, but the seed clusters on hornbeam are unlike those on any other tree.

The result is that the two best times for learning trees is from March to May and from August to September. The good news for beginners is that a relatively small number of trees make up most of those you see in the countryside. (But see the second point below.)

  • The best way to learn trees is to identify those in a local open space or woodland that visit often. Once you know a particular tree is a hazel or a beech, you can observe it all year and see how it changes with the seasons. You then recognise that tree whenever you see it in the countryside.
  • You can also identify trees in city streets and parks, but here there are many ornamental and exotic varieties of trees that are not found in the wild. These can be fun to identify later on, but are confusing for a beginner.

Here are some monthly tips:

  • JANUARY - hazel produces yellow catkins well before other trees
  • FEBRUARY - alder is the only tree with catkins and cones; cherry plum blossoms
  • MARCH - weeping willow and horse chestnut leaf. Willows produce catkins
  • APRIL - maples flower, blackthorn blossoms, hornbeams are a mass of catkins
  • MAY - hawthorn blossoms and horse chestnuts flower
  • JUNE - elder flowers, as do wild roses
  • AUGUST - red berries on hawthorn and wild roses. Plums and apples appear, as do sloes on blackthorn.
  • SEPTEMBER - most trees have nuts, berries or fruit of some kind

Getting started with birds

The biggest challenge with birds – and it is a huge one – is that they are often hidden by foliage, and don’t sit still to be identified. In fact, they invariably fly off when they notice you are looking at them. So to see them clearly enough you need four things – patience, cunning, binoculars of some sort, and to be making the attempt when there are no leaves on the trees.

This makes the period from January to March the best time of all to learn common UK birds. Mating songs are starting, and there is no foliage. Even then you can find yourself standing under a tree unable to see a bird that you can clearly hear.

Birdsong is even harder. You can’t look up birdsong in a book, and most people find a pattern of sound much harder to remember than a visual image. The tip here is to pick one song at a time that you know will be common at that time of year (see list below) and focus on identifying that. Birdsong apps can help (or buy a birdsong CD and copy it onto your smartphone, so you can refer to it in the field). The RSPB website also has useful bird identifier pages, including brief song clips. For a massive library of bird recordings see www.xeno-canto.org: you can search for any bird on this site and get multiple recordings of all their songs and calls.

Another approach is offered by Birdwatching with your eyes closed by Simon Barnes, published by Short Books www.shortbooks.co.uk. This takes you through the year, starting in midwinter with the robin, gradually building up your repertoire of birdsong. There is an online podcast to accompany the book.

The good news in all this is that in the countryside (that is, excluding ducks and other waterfowl) in the south east, a relative handful birds make up most of those you will see or hear singing. Here they are:

  • JANUARY - robins make twittering noises, but great tits dominate with a see-saw call
  • FEBRUARY - as February, plus song thrushes, dunnocks, greenfinches and chaffinches
  • MARCH - as March, but blackbirds also get going and, at the end of the month, the distinctive song of the chiffchaff
  • APRIL & MAY - birdsong heaven. But foliage now hides the birds. New arrivals include the blackcap.
  • JULY - silence descends as the mating season ends. Swallows and house martins wheel overhead catching insects
  • SEPTEMBER - robins start up again, and the main songsters for the rest of the year.
  • OCTOBER and beyond - communal birds twitter to each other, especially blue tits

The best place to see birds is in and around suburban gardens, as well as nearby wild spaces. The availability of food on bird tables increases the concentration of birds in such places, and there is correspondingly more birdsong. In rural locations, a mixture of low scrub and taller trees on the edge of open grassy spaces tends to be better for birdsong. By contrast arable fields can be surprisingly empty of them.

Birdsong is always stronger at dawn and dusk, as male birds remind rivals that they are still in possession of their territories: this is one advantage of winter for the birdwatcher, in that it is easier to be up at dawn when days are shorter. In the middle of the day, by contrast, birds are often feeding and have less time to sing, though sociable birds like tits and finches all hop around trees feeding and uttering odd snatches of song and contact calls, to reassure others in the group they are there. That being said, some birds - for example chaffinches or great tits - do also indulge in formal mating songs by day.

One final point worth making is that the best bird sightings are often opportunist. You look through your binoculars at what looks like a sparrow and it turns out to be a yellowhammer, or you look at a distant crow and find it is a green woodpecker. The lesson here is never assume you know what you are looking at: take a closer look.

Getting started with butterflies

The problem with butterflies is that they are constantly on the move, making it very hard to get a good look at them. This can make them very frustrating to learn and identify. But the good news is that there are only 59 species in the UK, and at least half of these are rare or found only in a few places. Learn to identify 15-20 of the common species, and that will cover all the ones you are likely to see in an average summer.

I found that the key to learning butterflies was, paradoxically, to try and photograph them. I used an ordinary pocket camera for this, set to macro, and walked around with it constantly in my hand one summer, snapping every butterfly I could. Once you have a photograph, you can then study the wing markings in detail using a book, or the identification tools on the Butterfly Conservation website.

While it may initially seem an impossible task to catch butterflies sitting still long enough to be photographed, careful observation will show you that some species - such as commas or red admirals - are often patrolling a particular territory. They have a favourite leaf to which they come back again and again. For other species it is just a matter of taking the opportunities that present themselves. If you see butterflies in an area, sit down and wait, and fairly soon some will land in front of you. Binoculars can also be surprisingly useful for looking at butterflies a few metres away, or half way across a field.

Courses

There is nothing like having expert help to get you started in identifying flowers, trees and birds. The following organisations offer day or weekend courses in this area.

Plantlife: UK charity championing flowers, which holds nature reserves at its reserve in Kent and other locations around the country

Field Studies Council: organises day and weekend courses in identifying flowers, trees and birds at various locations, including Juniper Hall near Box Hill in the North Downs

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has a variety of "dates with nature", including some on the identification of common woodland and country species.

© Peter Conway 2009-2015 • All Rights Reserved