Backyard biodiversity: The garden guide to nature

Learn how to identify flowers, butterflies and bees in #SpeciesADay campaign

Blue tit on garden bird feeder; ‘You can spot them building their nests as they carry sticks and bits of grass.’ Photograph: Getty

With most families confined to their homes in efforts to curtail the spread of Covid-19, there has arguably never been a better time to observe and appreciate the natural world in our gardens or back yards – for those lucky enough to have them.

Organisations including Birdwatch Ireland ( and the National Biodiversity Data Centre ( are witnessing increased traffic to their websites as people seek ways to identify the plants, insects and birds they've spotted at close quarters.

In mid-March, the National Biodiversity Data Centre (NBDC) launched its #SpeciesADay social media campaign to encourage people to send photos of specified plants or insects each day on Twitter or Facebook.

“People are looking for things to do, and the aim is to focus on the area around you. There is a captive audience in every sense of the word and you don’t have to go to exotic places to see lots. You can simply walk around your garden,” says Liam Lysaght, director of the NBDC.


With tips on how to identify flowers, butterflies and bees, the campaign brings attention to our spring flowers and insect species, while encouraging people to record their sightings on the NBDC database.

The NBDC’s Butterfly Atlas project encourages the public to record butterfly sightings. The trick is to learn how to distinguish similar-looking butterflies. For example, the small tortoiseshell butterfly (orange with black spots and a black band with blue dots on the rim of its wings) is often confused with the comma butterfly (orange with black spots without a rim around its wings).

And the holly blue, which flies high in the sky, could easily be confused with the common blue butterfly, which flies close to the ground and comes out a little later in April.

Confined to his home in Co Kilkenny, Lysaght is documenting and sharing the wildlife he discovers in his own garden on his personal website, "I'm doing this to keep myself sane too," he jokes. But his notes and photos of flowers and trees coming into bloom on the ground and in hedgerows will be a welcome distraction for many people.

City gardens

Wildlife expert and author of Wild Dublin (O’Brien Press), Éanna Ní Lamhna says that people can make their own fun outdoors no matter how small their garden. “You can look under stones and flower pots to find insects and you can build a habitat for ants, earwigs and spiders with dead wood, sticks and stones. Being outdoors, without earphones in, cultivates a sense of living in the moment, being quiet and noticing things,” she says.

You can also become adept at finding things you wouldn’t usually see in your garden by putting a sheet of paper under a hedge and then shaking it to see what insects fall out of it. Or, by sweeping a fishing net through vegetation or close to an outdoor light at nighttime, to discover moths and bugs.

And, don’t forget to look up and watch the different trees as they come into leaf. “The horse chestnut is the first big tree to come into leaf,” explains Ní Lamhna. Depending on which part of the country you live in, trees come into bud at different times and it can also vary from year to year, depending on the weather. It might be a nice task for children to identify the trees in their garden and then note down when each of them comes into bud.

For example, elder, hawthorn and hazel are some of the first smaller trees to come into bud, usually in March, while birch, crab apple, alder and rowen usually come into leaf in April. Oak and ash trees are the last trees to come into bud.

As the morning and evenings become brighter, it is also a great time to listen to and watch the birds during nest building and while they are incubating their eggs.

“April is a great time to hear lots of birds singing as they are building their nests and marking their territory,” says Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland.

Hatch encourages people to watch birds even from their windows. “You can spot them building their nests as they carry sticks and bits of grass, or feeding their chicks as they carry food in their beaks,” he says. Blackbirds, bluetits and robins nest in pairs while crows and sparrows nest in colonies so you’ll see larger groups of them around,” explains Hatch.

April is also the month when swallows and house martins arrive in Ireland. “House martins will build their nests from mud under the eaves of houses while the swallows will build them with mud and grass in open sheds, barns or in porches,” explains Hatch.

Birdwatch Ireland is also keen for people to report their first sightings of swallows and cuckoos on the website. “People can also follow the tracks of birds across Africa through the Mediterranean and to Ireland on this website too,” says Hatch.

And while the countrywide early-morning gatherings organised by Birdwatch Ireland to celebrate the dawn chorus won’t happen this year, you can always do so yourself by getting up early – or heading out at dusk – to listen to the rich variety of bird song. “Even in the cities, you will hear wrens, robins and blackbirds,” says Ní Lamhna who encourages people to record bird song on their phones and try to identify the common birds later.

In her book, Wild Dublin, she reminds us that about half of all bird species recorded in Ireland makes their home in the capital city.

Download the garden checklist

For those new to nature observation, the Backyard Biodiversity recording sheets (downloadable on with 20 easily identifiable species in rural and urban gardens is a good place to start. There's no rush but once you have spotted the different butterflies, bugs, bees, beetles, ladybirds, spiders, newts, worms, frogs and various birds, you can then learn how to become a recorder of Ireland's biodiversity with plenty of tips on how to submit sightings and view your records on