Like any good bird-lover, Gabriel Gottfried knew what to do when he spied the huge creature perched on a tree branch outside his Topanga Canyon home.
He grabbed his camera to document what experts say may be the first California condor to fly the canyon’s skies in more than 100 years.
His action photo of the elusive bird taking wing was remarkable enough.
But perhaps not as remarkable as the fact that Gabriel is 5 years old.
“I’m five-and-a-half!” corrects the pint-sized photographer whose sharp eye and quick shutter finger are being saluted by conservationists throughout the rustic residential canyon between Woodland Hills and Malibu.
Wildlife experts who are hailing Gabriel’s photo say it’s conceivable that a condor was taking temporary refuge from the Day fire, the huge wildfire that ravaged parts of the Los Padres National Forest in September and October.
The forest’s Sespe Condor Sanctuary and adjoining Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge is where captive-bred condors have been released in an attempt to reintroduce them to the wilds. Topanga Canyon -- which at one point was peppered by ash from the Day fire -- is within easy soaring range of the condor preserves.
Federal wildlife officials say the condors dispersed when the Day fire approached their sanctuary areas. All have since returned, Denise Stockton, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Wednesday.
Stockton and others have studied Gabriel’s photo in hopes of identifying the bird. But the silhouetted image is too dark to show identifying features or the numbers attached to all condors in the breeding program, she said.
“It’s amazing,” Stockton said of the child’s handiwork.
The photograph depicts the giant bird -- its head hunkered down and its powerful wings flexing -- as it launches itself from a pine tree across the street from Gabriel’s house.
Gabriel photographed the prehistoric-looking creature about a month ago after coming home from kindergarten.
When his nanny, Mayra Flores, commented on the big bird in the tree, Gabriel dashed to a hallway shelf where he keeps the digital point-and-shoot camera that his mother had given him. Just as he aimed it through his bedroom window, the bird took off.
“I’d never seen that kind of bird before,” says Gabriel, wearing a shirt bearing the colorful image of a parrot-like toucan, as he points out the window toward the tree.
Living on the upper-most northern ridge of the canyon, the boy is plenty familiar with its winged inhabitants. Red-tailed hawks are common. A great horned owl lives in one neighbor’s tree. Hummingbirds flutter among vines and wildflowers on the hillsides. Once, his parents, Mary Benjamin and Rick Gottfried, had to rescue a woodpecker from inside the family dwelling.
Benjamin, a documentary film producer, purchased the inexpensive Kodak digital camera for Gabriel after the expense of supplying him with disposable film cameras to take snapshots grew too high.
“I don’t use film. I use memory,” Gabriel says, explaining the photo technology. Demonstrating how he aimed the camera through the bedroom window, he talks of his photographic technique.
“I tried to take it on the tree, but it moved. I followed it by accident and got it in midair. My dad helped me get the picture out of the camera and into the printer.”
Gottfried, a counselor and family therapist, admits to being flabbergasted when he downloaded the image of the hulking creature.
“I didn’t know what it was. I’ve lived in the canyon 20 years and I’ve never seen a condor here,” he said.
Others knew immediately. When kindergarten classmate Jamie Mazur’s mother dropped Jamie off at Gabriel’s house the next day for a play date, it only took one look to convince her.
Jamie’s mother, Susan Clark, runs Topanga Animal Rescue and has studied condors.
“The wingspan of a condor can be up to 10 feet. I went out and looked at the trees shown in the photograph. It had a huge wingspan -- nothing else could have had a wingspan like that,” she said.
Experts say the last condor was probably seen in Topanga’s skies around 1898. That’s when legendary conservationist W. Lee Chambers, who died in the canyon in 1966 at age 88, pinpointed the demise of the bird in the Los Angeles area.
“Shortly after 1898 many new high-powered rifles came out and the market was flooded with them,” Chambers wrote in a treatise published in 1915. “It seemed that everyone who purchased a new high-power rifle had to target shoot, and it was the common practice for purchasers to go into the wilds and shoot everything they could see in an effort to improve their marksmanship.”
Though marveling at Gabriel’s condor photo, Kris Ohlenkamp, president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, said it’s doubtful the birds will again become permanent residents of Topanga Canyon.
“I think there would be too much disturbance for them here to actually breed,” he said.
So Gabriel’s photograph is probably as close as his Topanga Elementary kindergarten classmates will ever come to a condor.
“He brought the picture in for show and tell,” said kindergarten teacher Amy Weisberg.
The canyon children frequently bring in examples of nature for show and tell.
“Today one of them had a black widow in a clear plastic cup,” she said. Like the condor, the black widow was discussed “as much as 5-year-olds want to discuss it.”
Which is probably not what Gabriel would want to hear.
“I’m five-and-a-half,” he says.