Birding is great because you see all sorts of birds, but deep down we know some are just better than others. No, we don't admit to others (maybe even not to ourselves), but some birds are lame while others are awesome. Willow Flycatcher? Boring. Scissor-tailed flycatcher? Awesome!
Now, the relative abundance and ease of seeing a bird greatly affect its awesomeness. If I found a Clay-colored Thrush in my yard I would be calling everyone I knew, despite the fact that it is sort of like an American Robin, but even more boringly blander. I was excited when I saw a Connecticut Warbler despite the fact that it was young and an incredibly boring and drab bird. It had a nice eye-ring though.
With that in mind, I have decided to take it upon myself to rank all the North American Wood Warblers. What were my criteria? First, they had to be regularly found in the USA/Canada region, even if only a small sliver of it. This leaves out the Gray-crowned Yellowthroat, Rufous-capped Warbler, and Golden-crowned Warbler, but the Tropical Parula, Colima Warbler, and the Golden-cheeked Warbler barely squeak by.
Second, the rankings are based mainly on adult male breeding plumage, though a considerably crappy winter male or female plumage may detract from its rankings. Also, song doesn't play a role in this, even though I may change my mind on a few warblers. This is more practical, because I'm not going to try to listen to all the western warblers that I haven't seen to evaluate their songs. For the most part, I'm going to stick on the showy male plumage.
Finally, this is all subjective except for the fact that I am totally correct in these rankings. Once this ranking is published, there is no going back and all you warblers that are vaguely patterned with yellow and black will have to deal with it forever. Either that or it is just my opinion. I like the first explanation better though.
The Official and Conclusive Ranking of North American Wood Warblers
1) Bay-breasted Warbler. This was a no-brainer for me, as I've always been fond of this handsome bird. The nice reddish color with contrasting dark on the face and light on the breast and behind the head really does it for me. It does get pretty drab in the winter, but there was a moment in the spring of this year where a male Bay-breasted flew right in front of me and perched out in the open for everyone to see and preened himself. I watched it and my jaw just dropped; it was showing off for me.
2) Black-throated Blue Warbler. Again, a dark face that contrasts with the white belly, but this time the dark keeps going down the side and is complemented by the nice blue color along its back. It reminds me of the flag of Estonia. But what I really like, oddly, is the white wing-patch that always seems to flash for me to set off the darkness of the black and blue.
3) Yellow Warbler. Yeah, they are super common around me in the summertime, and yeah there are plenty of warblers with yellow on them, but the Yellow Warbler's color of yellow, plus the wonderfully crayon-like streaks of red on it, and the lack of eye-ring, make it seem like a wonderfully drawn cartoon.
4) Chestnut-sided Warbler. It doesn't have a whole lot of color on it, but the chestnut down the side is nice and reminiscent of the Bay-breasted. The dark lining of the face is nice, but the surprising bright yellow top of the head (and no yellow really elsewhere) really sets the ensemble.
5) Ovenbird. I love Ovenbirds and I can't help but smile every time I see one. They are a happy and cheery birds that always look a little worried; the kind of bird that thrushes wish they could be. I agonized over where to put them (I wanted them to be #2 because Bay-breasted are clearly the best), so feel free to move them up in your own mental list.
6) Painted Redstart. I haven't actually seen one (maybe some time I'll live in an area that they are in and is special for birding), but they seem to be pretty nice. Maybe a hair nicer than the next one on the list.
7) American Redstart. Redstarts are showy birds and, despite me seeing dozens of 'yellowstarts' and the occasional 'drabstart', are good for an 'oooh' and 'ahh' from me whenever I see them. The tail-fanning is nice.
8) Blackburnian Warbler. I saw a young (1st year) Blackburnian come through with migration the other day and man was that disappointing. They, obviously, are nice and showy birds (there is one on Kenn Kaufman's Advanced Birding), but just doesn't have the complexity of color pattern that the others above it do. Still a solid warbler.
9) Olive Warbler. I haven't seen it yet, but it looks really nice. Hell, it might even look nicer than Blackburnian in real life. Arizona again, huh?
10) Red-faced Warbler. Haven't seen it (dammit, Arizona again!), but it looks neat and striking. I like the black dropping down from the top of the head, and I'm always a sucker for red.
11) Tropical Parula. A tough call, but I like the lack of eye-rings (errr...eye-arcs) as compared to its Northern cousin. The blue and black and yellow and orange make a nice and memorable combination. This is one of those barely making the cut thanks to the bottom part of Texas.
12) Northern Parula. This is the second time I have a closely related pair of warblers where I put the familiar one second, maybe because I've seen a bunch of Northern Parulas and the Tropical seems so new and fresh. Either way, the Northern is still a nice looking bird for all the same reasons.
13) Palm Warbler. Out of season these are some drab-ass birds, and the western brown ones aren't that great either. But breeding Palm warblers are damn nice looking, especially with the rusty read color along with the muted yellow. Dammit, that sounds like they are wearing McDonald's uniforms!
14) Common Yellowthroat. Another one I'm sick of seeing, but there is no no denying the striking beauty of breeding male. Not just the yellow throat (because that is so rare in warblers), but the black face mask accented by a white...uhhh...accent.
That's it for part 1, tune in next time where I sort through some really nice looking warblers that all are freaking yellow with lots of streaky black markings. That will be a theme that you will see interwoven through much of the next 34 warblers.