LBJ: A Reassessment

Britain’s butterfly and (especially) bird life is rich and various, but, for all its beauties, those who take an interest in such things have to acknowledge an underlying tendency towards inconspicuous brownness. Large numbers of species – especially of birds – are pretty small and nondescript and come in unsassuming brownish shades. These are filed by the not entirely expert (myself very much included) under the heading Little Brown Job (LBJ for short). The LBJs are the hardest to differentiate and identify, and, to make matters worse, many of them are elusive and retiring species.

Among British butterflies, a classic LBJ is the harshly named Dingy Skipper. It is little – very little – and brown, and it’s a job to identify with any certainty, especially as, in typical skipper fashion, it flies fast and low with many a zigzag. However, unlike most of the skippers, when it does finally land it settles with wings spread rather than folded and is relatively easy to approach. And once you get up close to a Dingy Skipper, you realise that there’s a subtle beauty in those subfusc markings, patterned like tree bark or lichen, and coloured in a range of shades from near-black to near-silver – to describe those wings as merely brown is hardly adequate – and to describe this skipper as dingy is really a calumny.

The Dingy Skipper (for so we must call it) is, along with the even harder-to-spot Grizzled, the first skipper of the butterfly year, so seeing one always brings a special thrill. This year I spotted my first on a grassy slope at the edge of the North Downs Way. I wasn’t quite sure what it was – apart from a LBJ – and followed its course with my eyes until it disappeared into the grass just a yard away from where a family had sat down to admire the view. I crept up to where the skipper had landed – and there it was, in all its muted beauty, close up, basking in the sun. As I crouched admiring it, I became aware that the nearby family were eyeing me a tad uneasily. I explained that there was a butterfly down there – I told them what it was called – and they had a sight of it before it flew off again, careering over the grass. It was a magic moment, and I think the family felt something of it – they certainly seemed amazed that a butterfly could be so small. Once again the first Dingy Skipper of the year had made my day…

Hey Hey LBJ – How many times have you made my day?

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.

14 thoughts on “LBJ: A Reassessment

  1. Brit
    April 26, 2011 at 13:46

    At last, something natural I can feel confident about spotting. “Ah yes, now that’s definitely an LBJ, as we enthusiasts call it.”

    The great thing is that I can also apply this to birds, all small mammals and even many larger ones (I’ve never been confident about the horse/pony border, for example).

    How about trees? (BWOs – Big Woody Ones?)

      Banished To A Pompous Land
      April 26, 2011 at 14:42

      Applied to birds it reminds me of an old Ronnie Barker cockney rhyming slang skit. Remember the ambiguous ‘Little Brown Richard the Thirds’?

    April 26, 2011 at 13:59

    LLJs – Little Leafy Jobs – would cover a lot of nondescript shrubby things.

    Banished To A Pompous Land
    April 26, 2011 at 14:40

    At least the equivalent LBJs over this side of the pond are graced with the more imposing names of Horace’s and Juvenal’s Duskywings. Don’t ask me why. 1st century roman poets aren’t big over here otherwise.

    And you know how hard it can be to tell those skippers apart Nige. Try it here in Virginia and Carolina where theres over 70 species. I’ve recorded 8 just in the garden. Or it might be more, not entirely sure.

        Banished To A Pompous Land
        April 26, 2011 at 15:22

        Fascinating stuff Brit thanks. Very true regarding feeding on plant groups and not individual species. I plant herbs in boxes on the deck rails and come July the parsley, the fennel and the dill, all members of the carrot family, will be decimated by the Black Swallowtail catapillars. But hell its worth it!

    April 26, 2011 at 14:52

    Horace’s and Juvenal’s Duskywings! Those are brilliant names, Banished. And yes we Brits have been let off lightly with our Skippers – only 8 species, 2 of them limited to tiny areas. Even so, 2 of the others are almost identical.

      Banished To A Pompous Land
      April 26, 2011 at 15:29

      Here the problem is with the Little Orangey-Brown Jobs. There are dozens that experts can’t agree are even different species.

      Some though, are really quite distinctive.

      I’m finally planning on kicking off the Bug Blog this week, now that things are, literally, buzzing in the backyard. I’ll send you a link at Nigeness once its up.

    April 26, 2011 at 16:02

    Thanks, Banished – and that long-tailed job is amazing – I’d no idea there were tailed skippers!

  6. Worm
    April 26, 2011 at 16:28

    Perhaps it’s just an old naval myth, but I’ve heard the best way of telling skippers apart is by looking closely at their genitals

    April 26, 2011 at 17:04

    Hoho – very true! Nabokov spent rather a lot of his life scrutinising butterflies’ genitalia, though I think Blues were his speciality…

    April 26, 2011 at 20:04

    When it comes to birds, a bird-watching friend call them SBB rather than LBJ – “Small Brown Bird.”

    April 27, 2011 at 10:55

    A lovely photograph, another that I aspire to. So many of these LBJs are things of beauty close up, no matter whether one knows what they are, like some moths, such as a water carpet. I saw on a website that among the terrifying foreign names for the Dingy Skipper – anyone for Súmračník Kotúčový – is the Turkish Pasli (i.e., rusty) Zipzip. I like Skipper more, but Zipzip would still do nicely.

    April 27, 2011 at 12:19

    Zipzip is brilliant – that’s just how they fly – zipzip…

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