her tiny log cabin on a bluff overlooking a lake, the old lady warbles a love
song as she rocks in her chair and peers through binoculars at the object of her
affection. High above, a lone bird soars, wings outstretched, in a blaze of brown
and white. The bird traces long graceful circles in the sky, its wings flapping
slowly in a distinctive M shape. It swoops low over a raggedy nest perched atop
a manmade pole. The bird's mate, a lighter chocolate brown, pokes her head out
and begins a plaintive ''cheerek... cheerek... cheerek....'' Another spring, another
rhapsody of birdsong and blossoms bursting around Arrowhead Mountain Lake. Another
remarkable return by the osprey to the nest that Meeri Zetterstrom helped make
years ago these migratory fish-hunting birds were on the verge of extinction in
Vermont and much of New England, their numbers devastated by the now-banned chemical
DDT. The pesticide contaminated the food chain, poisoning the fish that osprey
feed on and disrupting the females' ability to produce calcium for strong eggshells.
Flimsy shells were crushed instead of hatched. Nests were abandoned. Now, in a
turnaround that even state wildlife officials describe as almost miraculous, Vermont
plans to remove the osprey from the endangered list. Seventy-one nests were counted
in the state last year, producing 84 chicks.
the first time in decades the osprey are thriving. And much of the credit goes
to a small, energetic woman, with a thick Finnish accent, a mop of gray curls,
and a striking ability to charm and cajole. ''Grandma Osprey,'' she is called,
and in her little corner of northeastern Vermont 84-year-old Meeri Zetterstom
is considered as rare and extraordinary as the birds she protects. Meeri feigns
bashfulness when asked about her role. ''Sisu,'' she says, the Finnish word for
never set out to become champion of the osprey, Meeri says, though sometimes,
when she rocks in her chair and reflects on her life it seems to have been predestined.
Growing up in Finland, she remembers seeing osprey thousands of them
on lakes everywhere. ''They were as common as robins,'' she says. Back then, she
paid scant attention to the otherworldly beauty of their sky dance at dawn, or
the breathtaking athleticism of their dive for prey.
then Meeri was more interested in seeing the world, in meeting the man of her
dreams. His name was Kurt Zetterstrom, and they met on a passenger ship in Sweden
where he was an officer and Meeri worked as a waitress after she finished school.
He resembled Britain's Prince Philip. He made her feel like a princess. They married
and traveled the world working on an oil tanker, stopping for adventures at every
port: camel rides beneath the Egyptian pyramids, motorcycling in Italy, picking
pineapples in Africa. And when they decided to settle down after ten years of
seafaring, they chose San Francisco to start their new life.
California proved too hot for their Scandinavian blood, and Washington State where
they moved next, proved too rainy. Eventually Meeri pulled out a map and plunked
her finger down on a skinny strip of blue in New England. They packed up their
Saab and drove to Vermont. With their own hands they built a two-bedroom cedar
cabin on the shores of Arrowhead Mountain Lake, a 740-acre stretch of water built
by a power company years earlier. Meeri tended their horses. Kurt worked as a
draftsman. Miles from the nearest town, they reveled in their solitude and in
their wild neighbors.
favorite was a lone osprey that would perch on the dead old basswood tree outside
their window. They would watch in awe as it circled the lake, hovering at great
heights before plunging feet-first once it spotted its prey, hitting the water
with a ferocious splash. Often it totally submerged before surfacing, talons sunk
deep into a fish almost its size. The osprey returned every year, though it didn't
seem to have a nest or a mate. ''It was such a mysterious thing,'' Meeri
says, ''We didn't know if it was male or female, but we loved that bird. We would
look forward to seeing it every spring.''
lakeside idyll was shattered when Kurt died suddenly of a heart attack early in
1988. Lost without her husband, Meeri grew even more despondent when the osprey
failed to return that spring. The bird didn't appear the following year either.
Staring into the lake, Meeri made a silent vow. ''I cannot bring my husband back,''
she thought, ''but maybe I can bring back my osprey.'' She read everything she
could about osprey and their nesting habits, about the impact of DDT, about efforts
by some states to build platforms to encourage the birds to nest. The more Meeri
read, the angrier she became.
Benjamin Franklin had praised the purity and agility of the osprey over the ''poor
moral character'' of the bald eagle, a scavenger who will sometimes steal an osprey's
catch. Yet there were only two known osprey nests in Vermont. ''People talked
about protecting the loon, the peregrine falcon, the bald eagle, yet nothing for
the osprey,'' Meeri says. ''The most beautiful bird of all.'' And so, as she tells
it, ''I started making noise.''
1990 she had become so persistent that the power company, Central Vermont Public
Service Corp., agreed to build two platforms, one atop the tree outside her cabin,
the other above a 30-foot fiberglass pole on another part of the lake. That Easter
Sunday, Meeri watched, ecstatic, as a pair of osprey landed on the nest outside
her cabin. The birds spent the summer fishing and building a bigger nest, though
they didn't breed. Not that Meeri worried. Young osprey often ''play house'' for
a year or two, before starting a family. ''The honeymooners,'' she called them.
Armed with dozens of photographs of the birds' return, Meeri persuaded the power
company to build more platforms. She helped a local citizens group successfully
petition the Vermont Water Resources Board to ban jet-skis on the lake and reduce
the speed limit for motor boats.
the next few years, more ''honeymooners'' arrived. But they continued to abandon
their nests, driven away by boaters. Once, Meeri saw people actually shaking the
nesting platform. Furious, she videotaped the offenders, dispatching the tape
to all the local television stations some of which aired it and
to the state and power company officials. ''Meeri was relentless,'' said Steve
Costello of the power company. ''And she was right.'' Costello first encountered
Meeri in 1996 on his first day on the job as public relations director for Central
Vermont Public Service Corp. A former newspaperman and amateur birder, Costello
quickly came to respect Meeri's knowledge and devotion. He marveled at how she
could watch the birds for 12 to 14 hours a day. She knew far more about osprey
than anything Costello had ever read in books.
took a liking to the dark-haired young man. They began working together and with
the state to create an 800-foot buffer zone around the nests. They planted warning
signs along the lake with pictures and information about the birds. They went
into schools and talked about the endangered species.
every spring, Meeri renewed her vigil, peering through her binoculars and praying
for a miracle. In 1998, for the first time, the birds didn't abandon the nest.
In fact, the mother rarely left it. And Meeri rarely took her eyes off it. And
so, she was a witness in mid-June when a little downy head popped up over the
rim. Breathlessly she watched as the mother tore strips off a pike the father
had just caught, and, using her hooked bill, delicately place them on the chick's
bright red tongue. ''I cried,'' Meeri says. ''I had never seen such a beautiful
sight.'' In her diary she wrote, ''Today my first baby was born.''
year the osprey have returned. And every year Meeri welcomes them, noting in her
logs the precise day and time they arrive. Meeri has mixed feelings about her
role, pointing out that the Arrowhead Mountain Lake birds are just a small part
of a successful state restoration program that has also seen ospreys return to
other parts of Vermont. Still, in this part of the world, it is ''Grandma Osprey''
people think of when they see the majestic raptor. And it is Meeri they thank
for bringing it back.
eyes are failing now and she doesn't use the binoculars as much. They sit atop
a pile of bird books in her cabin. Also in the pile is a children's book. Beautifully
bound and illustrated, it tells of a young woman's remarkable journey from Finland
to Vermont, and a bird's odyssey back to Arrowhead Mountain Lake. The book was
written by Costello and published in 2000, and copies were donated by the power
company to every third-grader in the state. The idea, Costello says, was not just
to teach them about endangered species, but to show them what one person could
do. The book is one of Meeri's most prized possessions. It is titled, ''Meeri
Meets the Osprey.''
Helen O'Neill, Associated Press
Meet Meeri Zetterstrom at: www.cvps.com/osprey/meet_meeri.shtml