The proud, fierce bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is our national symbol. Most folks picture it soaring above the fruited plains or the majesty of purple mountains while a Sousa march plays and Old Glory waves in the sunlight.
Americans do not picture our national bird perched on rubble atop a 500-foot-high pile of suburban garbage. But that, for good or bad, is the situation at the Prince William County Sanitary Landfill.
For the past year or so, an eagle has been a steady customer at the county dump and a faithful companion to landfill workers, who affectionately refer to their visitor as simply "the eagle."
"We think it's the same one, but we don't know; we didn't tag him or anything," said Polly M. Flory, who works at the landfill and is the closest thing to an eagle expert in the county's Public Works Department. On the other hand, Flory is not sure whether the him is even a he.
"That sucker will sit in the same place for hours, looking around majestically like he's the king of his domain," Flory said.
She guesses that the eagle comes around less for the garbage and more for the seagulls who come for the garbage. She figures that because the eagle has never deigned to dine on the never-ending feast of trash before him. He likes to chase the gulls, though.
The eagle has been seen by tour groups of Boy Scouts and schoolchildren who were at the dump to learn about recycling. Local birders who come to see the rare gulls that gather at the dump have also aimed their telephoto lenses at the eagle. And it even sat long enough for a portrait to be made by Ed Preston, a Public Works employee. Preston takes artsy photographs of noble birds of prey when he's not checking garbage trucks to make sure that they're not dumping anything improper, such as body parts or trash from Fairfax County.
County Executive Craig S. Gerhart loves that the eagle comes to the landfill. He says there is some irony in a symbol of freedom and nature being drawn to a symbol of human consumption and waste. Gerhart can get philosophical like that sometimes.
A local naturalist said symbolism can obscure the fact that an eagle is a predator and scavenger.
"The rigid standards that we put on animals don't always apply," said Joseph Witt, a wildlife biologist with the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuges Complex, which includes the Mason Neck, Occoquan Bay and Featherstone refuges.
He said eagles love fresh fish and also enjoy an occasional duck. Everything else is a distant third place. "They can be at dumps -- but not normally," he said. "Ninety percent of the time, they are on the river fishing. It's the 10 percent that gets the attention."
Witt said the eagle at the landfill is probably taking a break from fishing on the Occoquan or hanging out at area lakes and dams. He said there are several nearby eagle-nesting areas at Mason Neck, Cherry Hill, Neabsco and Fort Belvoir.
"Numbers are up for eagles, but the habitats are fewer," Witt said.
On a sunny day recently, the eagle was nowhere to be found, but the views from atop the trash heap were nothing less than glorious. To the west sat the Bull Run Mountains. To the east, Neabsco Creek gently drained into the Potomac. Above, the cloudless sky was a powdery blue, just perfect for soaring.