Friday, November 24, 2017

A Holiday Skunk

Yesterday afternoon, as our family gathered for a Thanksgiving meal, a striped skunk was observed, ambling across our farm.  Festivities were placed on hold as everyone watched the solitary creature, not often seen on a sunny afternoon.

Indeed, striped skunks are primarily nocturnal, though they may be encountered at dawn or dusk.  Omnivorous, they feast on insects, small mammals, eggs, seeds and fruit.  During the colder months, they utilize abandoned dens or dig one for themselves; there they wait out periods of severe weather but often emerge to forage during warm interludes.  Rarely killed by fox or coyotes, skunks may fall prey to great-horned owls, hawks, golden eagles or, of course, automobiles.

Striped skunks breed in late winter or early spring.  During that time, the male may gather a small harem and defends his territory.  Litters generally range from four to eight pups and the newborns are weaned within two months; the family breaks up by late summer and the young disperse to establish territories of their own.  Striped skunks range across most of North America, from southern Canada to northern Mexico.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving Visitors

On this morning's survey of our Littleton farm, I encountered a large flock of bushtits, roaming among the junipers and pinon pines.  These small, energetic birds are often observed in sizable flocks but their presence is erratic.

Twittering as they scour conifers, they feast on insects and their larvae, providing a valuable service for homeowners and foresters alike.  Despite their small stature, bushtits are hardy creatures and can be observed along the Front Range during all seasons; some years, they nest on our property, constructing a "sock nest" from a variety of natural and man-made materials.

I am always grateful when they visit the farm and can't help but be inspired by their energy and cheerfulness.  Just another gift to acknowledge on this Thanksgiving Day.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Counting Ducks

On this cold, sunny morning, I took part in the first winter waterfowl count of the season at South Platte Park.  Organized by personnel at Carson Nature Center, the counts occur monthly through the colder months, documenting the number and variety of waterfowl that winter at the refuge.

While the highlight of this weekend is a massive flock of common mergansers on Cooley Lake (estimates were over 900 at one point), our group was assigned several of the "Middle Lakes" which are on my routine eBird survey route at South Platte Park.  American wigeon were most abundant, followed by northern shovelers and gadwall.  Other species included Canada geese, mallards, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, common goldeneyes, American coot, ring-billed ducks, green-winged teal, two northern pintail and a lone pied-billed grebe.  Of course, a couple of hours in the field offers the opportunity to observe other species as well and we were fortunate to observe an immature bald eagle as it flapped across the refuge, no doubt looking for a potential meal of duck. 

Replicated throughout the country and across the globe, bird counts are conducted primarily by volunteers and are important in assessing the health and distribution of avian populations.  Such data fuels the protection of natural habitat, documents the effects of human activity and, in the case of waterfowl, helps to establish hunting regulations and restrictions.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Art of Listening

Effective communication is vital to human relationships and the art of listening is its key component.  While we admire those who can express their ideas in efficient or creative ways, communication is a two-way street and an attentive listener is equally important.

Too often, we humans equate communication with debate.  But debate is all about winning an argument and the debater listens just enough to formulate his or her counterattack.  Waiting to pounce on their opponent, the debater only gleans the highlights of the points that are made.

Unfortunately, most humans are more comfortable being the speaker than the listener.  Intimately connected to their own ideas, beliefs and experience, they easily become disinterested (if not bored) with the stories or reasoned arguments of others.  The art of listening is the ability to stay engaged, focusing on what is being said (without prejudgment) and willing to fully consider the views of the speaker.  If we all adopted that art, human communication would be greatly improved and the spectrum of intellectual logjams, such as the one that stymies the U.S. Congress, would be cleared from the paths of personal growth and human progress.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Summer Day in November

An atmospheric ridge over the Western U.S., combined with downsloping, southwesterly winds east of the Front Range, has brought summer-like conditions to Metro Denver in the middle of November; our afternoon high today was 74 degrees F.

Anyone who has not spent much time in this region likely imagines Denver to be a cold and snowy place; after all, it is the gateway to many ski areas.  But, while it may snow here from September through early June, we enjoy a relatively mild, sunny climate.  Warm weather interludes, like today's, occur throughout the colder months and are often followed by brief periods of rain or snow.

Indeed, the weather of the Front Range urban corridor is all about wind direction.  As storm systems approach from the west, we often receive downsloping, southwesterly winds ahead of the cold front; as the air is forced down from the Continental Divide to the Piedmont, it compresses, dries out and heats up, producing the summer-like conditions.  But once the storm moves east of the Divide and onto the High Plains, we usually receive upsloping, northeasterly winds; as the air is forced to rise by the regional topography, it cools down and it's moisture condenses as rain or snow.  In fact, rain and chilly air are forecast to arrive by tomorrow afternoon. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Goose Season

Returning to Colorado a few days ago, I noticed a significant increase in the Canada goose population since I left town in late October.  While the arrival of wintering geese has been late in recent years, the current flocks are right on schedule, apparently chased southward by potent cold fronts and snowstorms up north.

Of course, many suburbanites, park managers and golfers are not thrilled by the influx of our messy Canadian neighbors but some of us enjoy watching their large, noisy flocks as they move above the urban corridor.  Typically arriving in early November, the wintering geese occupy the region until early spring when they begin their journey to breeding grounds across Canada and the Northern Plains (see Front Range Geese).

The arrival of wintering Canada geese is of interest to birders for another reason.  Though they account for the great majority of geese along the Front Range, other species often get caught up in their autumn migration.  Just yesterday, I observed a snow goose in one of the flocks and a variable number of greater white-fronted geese join the Canadas each year.  Cackling geese, nearly identical in appearance but smaller in size and smaller billed, often mingle with the Canada geese; once thought to be a subspecies, they are now recognized as a separate species that breeds farther north and west than their larger cousins.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Males & Sexual Abuse

The recent spate of sexual abuse revelations involving men (politicians, pundits, broadcasters and entertainers, among others) offers clear evidence that we humans are part of the animal kingdom and that our large brains do not always protect us from ingrained animal behavior.

Throughout the animal kingdom, from invertebrates to mammals, the primary role of the male is to impregnate as many females as possible.  This often involves combat with other males (which may prove fatal), coercive behavior toward females and, in some cases, the instinct to kill the offspring of other males.  In almost all species, the male engages in sexual dominance, which may include the gathering of harems, and he plays a minimal role in nurturing and raising the young.

Early humans, like our hominid ancestors, most likely practiced polygamy.  As our civilization advanced, laws were established to protect families, women and children, though the nature of these laws (and their enforcement) varies widely among human cultures.  Unfortunately, the male sexual drive, influenced by parenting, personal experience and psychological factors, often overrides these social constraints (especially when those individuals occupy positions of power) and sexual abuse repeatedly occurs.  While knowledge of our natural history should not serve to condone such behavior, acknowledging male traits and tendencies is the first step in dealing with this issue.  Appropriate law enforcement, counseling and zero tolerance must then follow.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Iran-Iraq Earthquake

A magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck the Iran-Iraq border region yesterday; the initial death toll is over 450 individuals and is almost sure to rise.  The quake occurred in an active tectonic zone where the Arabian Plate is colliding with the Eurasian Plate.

About 40 million years ago, the Red Sea began to open, rifting the Arabian Plate from the African Plate; this rift continues southward as the East African Rift that will eventually split the Continent.  Twenty million years later, during the Miocene Period, the Gulf of Aden began to open as well and the combined forces of these active rifts zones are pushing the Arabian Plate to the NNE; its collision with the Eurasian Plate has been crumpling up the mountain ranges of Iran and Turkey, a process that continues today.

While the tectonic drift of continents is too slow for humans to observe during our brief life spans, the sudden release of pressure along fault lines, resulting in earthquakes, attests to the massive forces involved in this process.  Having sculpted the surface of our planet long before our species evolved, we must now live with the consequences of plate tectonics (See also The Eurasian Mountain Arc).

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Swans at Phillips Lake

On this damp, cloudy and chilly morning, my wife and I decided to take a walk around Perry Phillips Lake, in south Columbia.  After all, from now through the end of January, Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area is occupied by duck hunters and Phillips Lake is one local alternative for those hoping to observe migrant waterfowl.

To our surprise, two swans turned up as we circled the lake, gliding across the calm waters.  Initially assuming they were trumpeter swans that are increasingly common in the Heartland (see Midwest Trumpeters), I zeroed in with my binoculars.  I noticed that they had pinkish bills with black tips, indicating a juvenile status, and could not find a yellow spot at the base of their bills, present in most (but not all) adult tundra swans.  On the other hand, their necks extended straight up from their chests without the curve typical of trumpeter swans.  They also seemed a bit slim for trumpeters, especially when they flew away at the end of our visit, and leg bands were not observed as they passed overhead (most reintroduced trumpeters are banded).  Unfortunately, the visitors remained silent and thus could not be identified by their calls.

Distinguishing juvenile trumpeters from juvenile tundra swans is a bit of a challenge for most birders, especially when a direct, simultaneous comparison cannot be made in the field.  While tundra swans are far more numerous in North America, most migrate to coastal estuaries and relatively few are encountered in the Heartland; then again, a fair number turn up along the Missouri and Mississippi Valleys.  By contrast, trumpeter reintroduction programs have become widespread across the Upper Midwest and this largest species of American waterfowl is increasingly common in the Heartland.  I'm leaning toward the decision that this morning's visitors were juvenile tundra swans but, either way, it was a pleasure to see them.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Irruption of Crossbills

Over the past few weeks, red crossbills have been reported across Metro Denver and here in central Missouri; no doubt, these irruptive migrants have been spotted in many other areas of the U.S. as well.  Residents of Southern Canada, New England, the Great Lakes region and the Western Mountains, red crossbills occasionally appear at lower elevations or in more southern latitudes.

Irruptive species, while usually non-migratory, expand their territory when food (seeds, berries or prey) becomes scarce in their homeland; the scarcity may be do to normal fluctuations in prey populations, severe weather, insect blight, wildfire or, perhaps, climate change.  Red crossbills are among the more common irruptive migrants and have been known to nest outside their usual breeding range if they encounter sites with a large supply of pine cones; indeed, this species may nest during any season of the year.

On the other hand, irruptive species tend to be restless, moving about the landscape in search of food.  Here one day and gone the next, they are often a source of frustration for hopeful birdwatchers, as a friend and I found out yesterday.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Thomas Hill Reservoir

Located about ten miles southwest of Macon, Missouri, Thomas Hill Reservoir was formed by damming the Middle Fork of the Little Chariton River.  The 4950 acre lake and the surrounding Conservation Area are on property owned by the Associated Electric Cooperative, which built the reservoir to providing cooling water for its power plant.

For those who live in the region, Thomas Hill Reservoir is best known for its excellent fishery and birders flock to the lake to observe resident and migrant bald eagles, gulls, terns and waterfowl.  Today, accompanied by a friend and fellow birder, I had the opportunity to view several sections of the reservoir; there we observed two large rafts of lesser scaup, joined by smaller flocks of buffleheads, coot, hooded mergansers, redheads and northern shovelers.  A large number of Bonaparte's gulls wheeled above or settled on the choppy waters and small groups of pied-billed grebes foraged in the shallows.  Other sightings included two bald eagles, a red-shouldered hawk, a northern harrier, great blue herons, ring-billed gulls, double-crested cormorants, killdeer, Wilson's snipe, mallards and a lone northern pintail.

A unique feature of Thomas Hill Reservoir is a warm channel near the power plant that remains open through the winter months.  This unnatural hot-tub concentrates wintering waterfowl and is always a good place to look for rare vagrants that might wander into north-central Missouri.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Ruckus of Robins

On this raw November morning, a large congregation of American robins had taken over part of the Columbia Audubon Sanctuary.  Concentrated along the creek, the massive flock created both a visual and an auditory spectacle.

Flying between the stream and the surrounding trees, the robins attracted many other species, including a large flock of cedar waxwings.  The sudden appearance of a barred owl only added to the frenzy, drawing in a blue jay posse that soon dislodged the raptor with their raucous calls.  Other attendees included a yellow-rumped warbler and a ruby-crowned kinglet among more common avian residents.

Non-birders associate American residents with their well-trimmed lawns where these common thrushes hop about, stalking earthworms.  But during the winter months, when the surface soil hardens and the worms move to deeper layers, robins gather in large flocks that wander about, feasting on berries or scouring the soggy soil of wooded marshlands.  This morning's chilly, damp weather surely intensified their activity.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Since the rain had stopped and sunshine returned to northeastern Ohio, my wife and I headed over to Cuyahoga Valley National Park this morning.  Formerly a National Recreation Area, established in 1974, the preserve became a National Park in 2000; the refuge stretches along 22 miles of "the Crooked River" Valley, between Akron and Cleveland.

Entering via westbound 303, west of Hudson, we first stopped at the Happy Days parking area and hiked southward and upward to the magnificent Ledges, outcrops of Pennsylvanian Sharon Conglomerate that offer broad views of the Cuyahoga Valley.  Heading north along the River, we then stopped at the Boston Mills Visitor Center before heading over to Brandywine Falls near the east edge of the Park where a wooden stairway offers spectacular views of the cascade.  After a lunch in Brecksville Station, we continued northward along the Cuyahoga and then climbed eastward through the scenic gorge of Tinkers Creek, where overlooks, scenic waterfalls and picnic areas are connected by a hike-bike trail.

The Buckeye Trail cuts through Cuyahoga Valley National Park and the Towpath Trail follows the Ohio & Erie Canal that parallels the river from Cleveland to Akron; constructed in 1827, the canal was abandoned as railroads offered more efficient freight transportation in the 1860s.  In addition to the scenic topography, interesting geology and historical features of the Park, stands of Canadian hemlock (remnants of the Pleistocene) mix with the hardwood forest, offering a rich diversity of habitat for resident wildlife.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Kent State Wetlands

Obtained from the Frank family in 1967, Stark Pond has since become the centerpiece of an Environmental Education Center at Kent State University, characterized by riparian woodlands, cattail marshes and spring fed ponds.  The 200 acre refuge, accessed by a paved hike-bike trail, stretches along the southeast edge of the campus.

Today, I used that trail to explore the wetland.  Despite the cool, cloudy weather, I encountered an excellent variety of birds, including wood ducks, gadwall, pied-billed grebes and a host of songbirds; among the latter were white-throated and song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, downy and red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays.  American robins were especially common in the riparian woodlands, feasting on berries, insects and earthworms.

The highlight of my visit was a red-shouldered hawk, surveying the scene from a dead tree.  Often associated with marshlands, this buteo typically hunts from a perch, looking for small mammals, snakes and a variety of amphibians.  Huddled in the chilly air, he was clearly the king of this wetland.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Autumn at Sandy Lake

We have returned to my wife's family cottage on Sandy Lake in northeastern Ohio.  Autumn colors are peaking though a gray overcast and intermittent showers have cast a pall on the annual display.

Hiking around the lake this afternoon, I encountered the usual mix of permanent and winter residents, including mallards, great blue herons, belted kingfishers, red-bellied woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees and dark-eyed juncos.  A tardy double-crested cormorant was fishing on the choppy waters and blue jays were especially numerous and conspicuous in the lakeside woodlands.  Ospreys, common here during the warmer months, have apparently departed for warmer climes and bald eagles, present throughout the year, did not make an appearance on this mild, cloudy day.  The highlight of my walk was a lone golden-crowned kinglet, foraging in thickets along the inlet canal.

We'll spend a few days here before returning to Missouri and I hope to visit other birding hotspots before we leave town.  More on those excursions in the coming days.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Return to Eagle Bluffs

After a three month hiatus, I returned to Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area this morning.  Arriving just before dawn, I first encountered large, restless flocks of red-winged blackbirds and a lone flock of common grackles.

Mallards were abundant on the flooded fields, ponds and central channel, joined by a fair number of American coots, nine pied-billed grebes, a small group of northern shovelers and a single northern pintail.  Two bald eagles, a pair of northern harriers and a red-tailed hawk patrolled the Missouri floodplain refuge, great blue herons stalked the shallows and two belted kingfishers noisily hunted along the channel.  Killdeer, the only shorebirds encountered this morning, foraged on the mudflats while song, savannah and white-crowned sparrows were common along the roadways, joined by eastern bluebirds and American goldfinches.

Unfortunately, the southern half of Eagle Bluffs has already been closed to the public (to provide refuge for wintering waterfowl) and most of the northern half will soon be reserved for those humans who hope to kill them.  Such is the nature of modern Conservation Areas.   

Friday, October 27, 2017

Merlin Weather

As the clouds thickened, the north wind intensified and light snow fell in the frigid afternoon air, a merlin appeared on our farm yesterday.  These small, dark falcons breed across Alaska, Canada and the Northern Rockies and their appearance each fall often coincides with the first bout of winter weather.

During the colder months, merlins are fairly common across the Western U.S. and in coastal areas of the Southeast; there they favor open country with nearby trees where they feast on songbirds and shorebirds.  Often hunting from a perch, these small but powerful raptors chase prey as they scatter into the air, snaring a victim in flight.

Yesterday's visitor had perched in a leafless locust tree overlooking our front "lawn" and a small pasture.  Unfortunately, his presence drew the attention of black-billed magpies that harassed him with their raucous squawks and the falcon soon disappeared into the gray, snowy sky.  

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Front Range Nosedive

Yesterday afternoon, the high temperature in Metro Denver reached 86 degrees F, far too warm for late October.  When such extreme weather events occur, they often presage a coming change and our summer-like heat was no exception.

Mild conditions persisted this morning and the temperature at dawn was 63 degrees.  However, a light north breeze was evident and, by 11AM, the temperature had fallen to 51 degrees under partly cloudy skies.  An hour later, the wind kicked up and clouds moved in; by 1PM, it was 42 degrees.  Throughout the afternoon, the gray overcast thickened and the temperature continued to fall; by 5PM, it was 35 degrees and light snow flurries danced in the north wind.  We expect an overnight low of 26 degrees F, a drop of 60 degrees over 36 hours.

The culprit for our temperature nosedive is an atmospheric trough, dropping across the Great Plains.  Blizzard conditions have developed in North Dakota and Minnesota is experiencing its first significant snow accumulation of the year.  Since we are on the west edge of the trough and since we are not receiving classic northeasterly upslope winds, our snowfall is expected to be minimal and temperatures along the Colorado Front Range should rebound quickly in the coming days.  Indeed, we expect a high near seventy on Sunday.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Power of Love Denied

Except for those who marry their high school sweetheart and live happily-ever-after, most humans experience love affairs that, for whatever reason, do not work out.  Though we go on to marry or live with someone else, that unrequited love haunts our life.

Unlike the love that leads to marriage, its intensity is never tainted by the stress and challenges that come with balancing our careers and family life.  Rather, it is forever associated with our youth, when we were free and blissfully unaware of the emotional turmoil that lay ahead.  Embellished over the years, the failed relationship resurfaces in our memories, fueling nostalgia and causing us to question the choices that we made.

Of course, had that youthful romance led to marriage, someone else would now represent the love we were denied; it is the nature of the human condition.  Indeed, deep down, we may know that the past relationship would not have lasted but love is immune to intellectual reasoning.  The pain of love denied is a powerful and unrelenting emotion.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

In Defense of Millennials

Millennials, loosely defined as those humans born between the early 1980s and late 1990s, get a bad rap, usually related to a tendency to focus on their personal needs.  While they have been referred to as the "Me Generation," I seem to recall similar sentiments directed at my generation, the Baby Boomers, many of whom opposed the Vietnam War and thus shunned military service.

As a social liberal and environmentalist, I admire Millennials for a number of reasons.  They seem to be less focused on personal consumption, preferring to live in urban condos or apartments,  to use mass transit and to forego high-priced clothing, upscale restaurants and automobiles.  Socially conscious, they are avid volunteers, oppose racism, defend the rights of the LGBT community and generally loathe Trump's anti-global policies.  Finally, Millennials have demonstrated less susceptibility to mysticism (i.e. religion), the major threat to science, environmentalism and human enlightenment across our planet.

Growing up in the digital age and confronted with the economic challenges created by the Great Recession, Millennials have a unique perspective on both the problems facing humanity and on the potential opportunities that technology offers in dealing with them.  Youth will always remain a beacon of hope for our species and I have faith in Millennials; they know how to co-exist!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Autumn Roars Back

After a week of summer-like weather in Metro Denver, a potent cold front dipped across the Front Range overnight, raking the trees and rattling the windows.  The winds brought in clear, crisp Canadian air and our afternoon high will be twenty degrees (F) cooler than it was yesterday.

High pressure behind the front has settled over the upper limits of the Great Basin and will produce Santa Ana winds across Southern California in the coming days.  Meanwhile, the cold front continues to march eastward and will clash with warm, humid air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico; this collision will ignite a band of strong thunderstorms across the Great Plains and the Upper Midwest.

Our dose of autumn will be brief and summer warmth will return tomorrow, persisting for several days before snow arrives late in the week.  One sign of our gradual transition to winter has been the annual return of a Harlan's hawk to our Littleton farm; after breeding in Alaska and Western Canada, this dark subspecies of the red-tailed hawk winters across the Southern Plains, from Colorado to West Texas (see Welcome Back Harly!).

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Invasion of Blackbirds

Yesterday afternoon, at about 3:45 PM, the vanguard arrived on our Littleton farm.  Twelve common grackles gathered beneath the feeders, feasting on fallen seed.

Over the next hour, their activity and calls attracted other blackbirds that were passing through the area and a full invasion was underway.  Peak numbers reached about 70 grackles, 50 red-winged blackbirds and six black-billed magpies.  The noise was deafening as the skittish birds intermittently scattered into nearby trees and then returned to the feeding area; some began to spread into the adjacent fields while others clamored for spots along or within the bird bath.  Meanwhile, a few mourning doves, oblivious of the frenzy around them, waddled among the blackbirds, searching for overlooked seed.

Suburban homeowners, farmers and many birders are not terribly fond of blackbirds, whether they be European starlings, common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds or other less common, regional species.  But these noisy and aggressive birds consume uncountable weed seeds, grubs and insect pests in addition to the grain and bird seed that they scavenge.  Nevertheless, when they invade our property in large, noisy flocks, it can be difficult to appreciate their role in nature.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Morning Spectacle

Sometimes, taking out the garbage before dawn can be a rewarding experience.  This morning, a Cheshire Moon smiled in the eastern sky, just above the bright beacon of Venus.

To the SSW, Orion gleamed through the crisp, crystal-clear air and Sirius, the brightest star from Earth, trailed to its east.  The cluster of the Pleiades was high in the western sky, while the zig-zag of Cassiopeia cut through the darkness to the northwest and the well-known Big Dipper hung to the southeast.  As if to add an exclamation point, a meteor streaked across the southern sky.

One is both inspired and humbled by the night sky which reminds us that, contrary to long-held beliefs, our planet is but a speck in the massive Universe.  The Constellations, which change with the seasons, now confirm that we are approaching the cusp of winter; indeed, the appearance of Orion coincides with the cool, crisp air of autumn and the Hunter will dominate the southern sky through the frigid nights ahead.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

California's Firestorm

Last winter, when heavy snows fell across the Sierra Nevada and soaking rains caused flooding in the lowlands, one might have concluded that California's multi-year drought had finally come to an end.  Indeed, the drought-severity map improved significantly and concerns about the water supply for cities and agriculture were temporarily ignored.  Then came the dry season.

New vegetation growth, fueled by the copious winter precipitation, brought greenery to the semi-arid landscape.  As summer progressed, however, the relentless sun and dry air took a toll on this plant fuel and, combined with an abundant supply of dry timber from years of drought and fire suppression, the stage was set for an October inferno.  Low humidity, typical in early autumn, and strong offshore winds, triggered by high pressure over the Great Basin, have also been major factors in both the intensity and speed of the deadly wildfires.

Those who live in semi-arid regions (including the Colorado Front Range) know that periods of heavy precipitation are but temporary reprieves for a landscape that has long been shaped and renewed by wildfire.  The dry air and abundant sunshine offer an attractive setting for an outdoors lifestyle but come with a risk that is currently all-too-evident in the wine country of Northern California.