© CA Dept of Fish and Game
In one scene, a small bobcat crouched on a one-inch perch, appearing to gather the courage for a 10-foot leap over a stream to an equally tiny landing spot.

In another, a large mountain lion crept along a creek, searching for a way across without getting wet.

Then there was the phantom creature that snuck right behind the wildlife biologist and his camera, then disappeared - but only for a moment. In another episode, a bear, the Holy Grail of "critter cams," hovered over a salmon pool on a remote creek, then out-quicked the camera.

A "critter cam," also known as a "trail cam," can unveil the wildlife secrets of forests, streams and lakes. These are movement-activated cameras strapped to trees, or fixed video cameras positioned at strategic locations on land and underwater. They are like having hidden eye-witnesses in the wilderness.

In Northern California, these cameras aid scientists when they count salmon spawning on remote streams or to verify the presence of endangered and threatened species in forests. In March, for instance, a critter cam captured a digital image of a wolverine in Tahoe National Forest in the Sierra Nevada. This was the first wolverine documented in California since 1922. Long thought to be extinct in California, nobody can explain how the wolverine suddenly appeared, yet there it is, courtesy of a tree-mounted motion-activated camera. Critter cams could also solve the mystery sightings of "black panthers" at Bay Area parks.

Fish and Game biologist Doug Killam, the scientist who photographed the 85-pound salmon on Battle Creek two weeks ago, is now running five video stations with critter cams. The priority is to verify counts of spawning salmon, but the footage is also providing glimpses into the secret world of wildlife.

"The tape watcher's job is to watch hours and hours of video," Killam said. "Some cameras film 24/7 for months a time. It's very special person who can watch tape for hours at a time, grinding along, counting fish. Then when something special happens, the tape watchers will jump up out of their seats."

He provided these stories:

Don't get your feet wet: A video, taken last month, starts with a tiny frog swimming upstream, which then suddenly darted off to the side, as if being chased. In the next moment, a huge mountain lion appeared, walking along the creek, gingerly picking its way along a narrow ledge of rocks. From head to the tip of its tail, the lion was eight to nine feet long.

"It appears to be searching for a way to get across the creek without getting its feet wet," Killam said, watching the video.

At one point, the mountain lion actually slipped for a second on the wet ledge, unsure of itself. It then paced to a shallow spot and gingerly placed a paw an inch into the creek, like a person dipping their toe in a swimming pool.

Then, as if saying "Here goes," the lion took what appeared a terrifying step into six inches of water. After enduring the agony of its paw in water, California's fiercest predator crossed the tiny creek.

"Pretty funny to watch," Killam said.

Bobcat Olympics: Killam placed a video camera overlooking a weir, that is, a chute-like apparatus positioned in a creek to funnel migrating salmon upstream to spawning habitat. The film starts when a bobcat, about 25 pounds, crept its way on a one-inch pipe to the edge of the chute.

"Amazing agility, like a tight-rope walker," Killam noted.

The bobcat then stopped and peered across the weir, about a 10-foot wide opening where the stream passes through, as if looking for a way to get across the creek. The bobcat looked upstream, then downstream, and turned around on the one-inch pipe and retreated a few feet.

"He's changed his mind," Killam said. Twenty seconds, later, the bobcat turned again and tiptoed to the edge of the water. "The stream is two to three feet deep and he doesn't want to get wet."

The bobcat hesitated again on the edge, bracing itself, crouched, then suddenly leaped 10 feet through the air and landed on the other side of the weir, on another one-inch pipe, still dry. After that amazing jump, the bobcat then crept across the other side to land and out of the video.

The phantom creature: Killam, wearing a wetsuit and snorkel gear, was in a creek to make underwater video of salmon. He stopped to reload next to a big log.

"I was working with the camera for about five minutes, when there was this loud splash right behind me," Killam said. "It shocked me and I turned around real quick, but there was nothing there. But I saw that the log was real wet, like something had been sitting there. I thought I was going crazy."

A minute later, a family of otters, four of them, emerged on the surface of the stream with a three-foot salmon. Each had grabbed the fish. Then, as if at a family breakfast, they squabbled and chattered at each other, with the older ones pushing the smaller ones to get to the best part of the salmon.

"I finally figured it out," Killam said. "One of them had swum up and climbed on the log behind me, watching me, trying to figure out what I was. When I moved, it must have jumped in and swam back to its family, and they had their breakfast."

Movie-star bear, Take 2: On a remote creek, 50 miles from the Sacramento River, the most distant stream a salmon can reach to spawn in Northern California, Killam and an assistant arrived with underwater video gear in a small pack to document salmon numbers. Before fall rains, the creek barely flows and is only 15 or 20 feet wide, but has deep pools that will hold migrating salmon, which wait for cooler temperatures to spawn.

"We got to this cliff, poked our heads over, and spotted this large black bear standing in the middle of the creek," Killam said.

Without a word, the scientists tussled with the pack to get out the camera. The bear then reached into the water with a paw to trap a salmon, and then in a flash-quick move, poked its head into the stream and grabbed a three-foot salmon with its mouth, like a dog grabbing a loaf of bread.

"The bear looked up at us, with this large salmon perfectly centered in its mouth, as if to say, 'Did you get the shot?' We're watching with our jaws hanging down, still trying to get the camera out."

The bear then ran straight up the canyon wall, as steep as it can get and still hold soil, the salmon still in its mouth.

"The Great Outdoors With Tom Stienstra" airs Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on KMAX-31 Sacramento. E-mail Tom Stienstra at