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Introduction Beginner's Guide Where to find wild flowers Where to find butterflies Week by Week SWC_Nature

Nature and Weather in South East England

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. The month by month sections on this site (see the blue button menu above) go into more detail, 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. 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 speed the identification process - in the old days you had no choice but to thumb through a reference book - but you still need to take the time to stop and consult them. 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. Identify one thing, then look out for other examples on your walks for the next week or two.

It is also useful to identify things in your neighbourhood - in a park or green space where you walk. That way you can watch how it changes as the seasons progress. This is a particularly useful thing to do with trees and shrubs - see below.

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 the blue button menu at top of page) are designed to tell you just that.

  • Smartphones really help in identification, because it is easy enough to take a photograph and try and identify it later. Many apps - such as Plantnet or iNaturalist enable you to upload a photo and have it matched to existing photographs. Usually these are quite reliable, but sometimes they throw up strange identifications. It is always useful to google the name they supply (ideally the Latin one) and see if they throw up other images of the same plant. If you have a particularly puzzling flower to identify, try posting it to iSpot.

  • Identifying the flower in situ is useful, if you can take the time to do it. If you do it later, you may find your photograph lacks critical details - for example, that the only way to tell it from another species is to examine its leaves or their arrangement on the stem.

  • 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.
See here for a guide to walks in the south east featuring particular flowers. And here are some monthly tips:

  • JANUARY & FEBRUARY - snowdrop
  • MARCH - lesser celandine, daffodil, primrose, wood anemone
  • APRIL - as March, plus cuckoo flower, garlic mustard, stitchwort, forget-me-nots, ramsons, and of course bluebells
  • MAY - buttercup, oxeye daisy, red campion, cow parsley, germander speedwell
  • JUNE - poppy, foxglove, hedge woundwort, sow thistles, hawksbeards, birdsfoot trefoil
  • JULY - rosebay willowherb, ragwort, majoram, ladies bedstraw, knapweed, thistles
  • 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:

  • FEBRUARY - hazel and alder produce catkins before other trees
  • MARCH - cherry plum and forsythia flower, weeping willow leafs, grey and goat willows produce catkins
  • APRIL - blackthorn blossoms, hornbeams are a mass of catkins, wild cherry flowers. Most shrubs and trees come into leaf
  • MAY - hawthorn blossoms and horse chestnuts flower
  • JUNE - elder flowers, as do bramble and 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. Luckily smartphones are very good at recording birdsong, which you can then try to identify on birdsong apps or by posting them on social media. 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. 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 January, plus song thrushes, dunnocks, greenfinches and wrens
  • MARCH - as February, but blackbirds and chaffinches 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.
  • JUNE - Swallows and house martins wheel overhead catching insects
  • JULY - silence descends as the mating season ends, but wood pigeons and collared doves keep on calling
  • SEPTEMBER - robins start up again, and are 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 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 feeding themselves or their young and have less time to sing. That being said, some birds - for example chaffinches, blackcaps, wrens, chiffchaffs or great tits - do also indulge in formal mating songs by day, and in late April and early May, at least in reasonably wooded areas, it can seem as if blackbirds are singing everywhere, all the time. Outside the mating season, sociable birds like tits and finches also hop around trees feeding and uttering odd snatches of song and contact calls, to reassure others in the group they are there.

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 65 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. See here for a guide to all the butterflies you can see on walks in the south east.

I found that the key to learning butterflies was to try and photograph them. I used an ordinary pocket camera for this 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. Binoculars are also indispensable.

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.

To identify the butterflies you see, you can use the tools on the Butterfly Conservation website, or get the Guide to the Butterflies of Britain and Ireland from the Field Studies Council. The latter is a simple three part card that you can easily carry around with you, and which importantly shows all the UK butterflies actual life size and in male and female forms (if they are different). This saves you a lot of time wondering (for example) if you are looking at a meadow brown or a small heath (they have similar underwing markings but are quite different in size).

If you want a book about butterflies, buy the Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland by Richard Lewington. Like the Field Studies Council card, all the illustrations in this book are life size, and - crucially - it only includes butterflies you can see in the UK. Most other butterfly books make up for the small number of UK species by adding lots of European ones - irrelevant and confusing if you are trying to learn the species in this country.

If you have a particularly difficult butterfly (or moth) to identify, try posting a photograph of it to iSpot.

Courses

There is nothing like having expert help to get you started in identifying flowers, trees and birds. It is worth checking out if your local nature reserve (particularly urban ones) are doing any nature identification walks. The following organisations also 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 2009-2022 • All Rights Reserved

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