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For sky watchers and nature observers there are few vantage points better than that of a tractor cab. Keith Corliss

Flight Lines: Fall observations eight feet above ground

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Twenty-three years ago, looking to put a few more dollars in my pocket, I began working for a farmer northeast of Moorhead during the sugar beet harvest. It turned into a near-annual engagement from that year on. More recently, I have helped with the corn and soybean harvests as well, filling out my free fall days driving various pieces of farm equipment.

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In some ways it’s similar to my primary profession, aviation. Both share ample opportunities for experiencing the earth and sky, one from 32,000 feet, the other from 8 feet. And both allow ample time for thinking. Thank God for autopilots and Autosteer.

Making the perspective from the tractor unique, though, is its closeness to the earth. During round after round in a rural field, images of one’s surroundings appear that the average office dweller will never truly appreciate.

Always evident is the broad-shouldered sky of the Red River Valley. From horizon to horizon the breadth of the firmament cannot be better appreciated than from here. Light and color continuously shift and morph, changing moods with the hours. Weather cannot sneak up on a farmer. He watches keenly as leaden brooding clouds approach from miles away. Sunsets and sunrises? Well, they’re simply amazing.

Smaller details emerge too. A hole in the earth, hidden all summer by a standing crop, is laid bare. A family of foxes likely called this home. A few thirteen-lined ground squirrels are still out doubling their weights before long hibernations underground. Their body temperatures will soon be just above freezing while their hearts beat five times a minute for the length of the winter.

There are yet Franklin’s gulls about, traveling around in large tight flocks constantly in search of invertebrate meals. The instant water freezes on the wetlands and sloughs, they will disappear for the winter.

Like gulls, aerial predators seem to know there is food to be found behind a moving plow. One day in particular, no less than six red-tailed hawks spent the daylight hours feeding on scampering voles exposed by my passing. I ask the question, is this innate or learned behavior, nature or nurture?

Canada geese are everywhere. It’s hard to determine which ones are true northern migrants, or which are simply part of the thousands of year-round residents that will spend the winter at the Moorhead lagoons.

A few western meadowlarks linger, most in small groups. They never seem to travel in large numbers around here. Are these families units moving together or merely small loose-knit collections?

Invisible to most passersby from the road are the Lapland longspurs. What seemed like a barren field mere moments ago erupts as flocks (often in the thousands) of these small, sparrow-like visitors from the Arctic tundra whirl about in lilting breezy flight. Another Arctic visitor is here already too. Rough-legged hawks are making quite a showing as good numbers of them are passing through, often seen hovering like an American kestrel only much bigger.

For about 90 seconds last week I was treated to quite an acrobatic display. In the long, warm light of early morning, a merlin (smallish falcon once known as pigeon hawk) sprinted from behind the cab and pursued a handful of songbirds mere feet in front of me in hopes of a meal. After several unsuccessful dashes, it moved on leaving an etched copy of what I’d just seen filed in my brain.

Observing and thinking: two endeavors I particularly savor when given time to fully engage in them. It could be reasonably argued there is perhaps no better place for either one than in an airplane or tractor cab. I am ever aware of just how lucky I am to regularly sit in both.

If there is a downside, it’s noise. All one’s observations come purely from the visual. There is no sublime sighing of rustling leaves to hear, no tinkling chandelier songs of horned larks. I’m mindful, though, that nearly everything we pursue comes with a cost, a tradeoff. If I must abide the drone of airplane engines for a raven’s-eye view of Colorado’s Pike’s Peak, or tolerate the rumble of a tractor’s diesel engine for intimate glimpses at the screaming burnt orange of a rising sun, well, I’ll take it.

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