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?