For the Birds Radio Program: Old Faithful Bluebird

Original Air Date: July 24, 1995

This week Laura Erickson recounts some of her birding experiences on her family’s vacation to Yellowstone. Today she talks about a Mountain Bluebird who took it on herself to announce each eruption of Old Faithful. 4:05

Audio missing


Last week when my family visited Yellowstone, the first thing we did the first morning was go see Old Faithful. When I was a little girl, I remember reading about it in a geography book, how it went off on an exact schedule, with eruption predictions accurate within a minute or two.

When I went to Yellowstone in 1979, it was starting to become a little less reliable, but most predictions were still accurate within a few minutes. Nowadays, Old Faithful has become even more unreliable. Predicted eruption times come with a plus or minus ten minutes, and the National Park Service people are quick to remind everyone that the geyser sometimes is off by more than a half hour. So, in other words, don’t hold your breath.

But waiting to see Old Faithful is half the fun. The kids spent their time crawling around on the boardwalk petting marmots–chunky mammals of open mountain country that are amazingly tame. It’s against park regulations to feed them, but they seem to like people even without food, and one took a particular liking to my Tommy. Eleven-year-old aspiring photographer Katie took pictures of the marmots, and Russ spent the time taking pictures of both the marmots and of Katie taking pictures. Me–I sat on our bench saving everyone’s place and watching Violet­ green Swallows. Dozens of them swooped and darted above the steaming thermals and the chalky, bare earth, deftly catching a myriad of flying insects recently emerged from mountain streams.

White-crowned Sparrows were also common in the arid thermal areas, and I watched a couple of them hopping about on the ground near the boardwalk–we in the Northland usually only get to see White-crowns during spring and fall migration. Suddenly a lovely apparition materialized–a female Mountain Bluebird came seemingly out of nowhere and hovered at eye level just before my section of the crowd. I watched her for just a moment, and at that instant Old Faithful erupted, spewing water up close to a hundred feet. After the short eruption, the bluebird was no where to be found.

Our third evening in Yellowstone we decided to have one more look at Old Faithful. According to the schedule, it was supposed to go off about 7:25, and since it was just 6:30, we thought we had plenty of time to get dinner at the Old Faithful cafeteria. We ate at a table overlooking the geyser, and then rushed outside at 7:15, taking a bench on a different side of the geyser to get the sun right. We waited, and waited, and waited. Unbeknownst to us, the geyser had decided to erupt almost a half hour early, while we were still getting our food, and the newest prediction was now for 8:30.

This time the wait was just as entertaining as the first–the marmots were out in full force, the evening sun hung low over the thermals making photography interesting for Russ, and swallows were everywhere. I spent much of the time searching for that little female Mountain Bluebird, but she was nowhere to be found. The minutes slowly ticked by, and 8:25 rolled around, then 8:30, and finally 8:35.

Suddenly we noticed the bluebird sitting on the lip of the geyser, steam gushing out inches from her. After a few moments, she sat taller, and suddenly flew up, again hovering at eye level right before us, and almost immediately Old Faithful went off. The National Park Service hires a human naturalist to talk informally to the crowd about Old Faithful, but the Natural Park Service’s sweet little sentinel was just as informative, and a whole lot cheaper.