OCEAN TOWNSHIP - With a few slivers of sunlight piercing the clouds and the canopy above, Mark Villinger hiked through thick brush toward an oasis hidden between the hills off Brookville Road.
He stopped at the banks of a small pond, obscured by trees and filled with vegetation. Birds chirped overhead, while a chorus of croaks came from the understory.
"I think that's it," he said, turning his ear toward the water, listening for the Pine Barrens tree frog.
The unseen pool is a sanctuary for these endangered amphibians, which is partly why on Wednesday afternoon the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved the acquisition of the 22.3-acre parcel that encompasses it.
"We rank this at the highest level of natural resource value," said Michael Catania, president of Conservation Resources Inc., which consulted the Pinelands Conservation Fund to pay a third of the $212,000 cost. "It's a gorgeous piece of land."
The body of water is called a vernal pool, a depression in the ground that cannot drain, sometimes with a thin layer of clay at its bottom that retains rainwater and runoff.
With all the rain that has fallen so far this season, this particular pool currently measures at least 30 feet in diameter.
Toward the middle or end of summer, though, the pool dries up - so it cannot support fish. This creates a perfect habitat for amphibians, which lay their eggs when the pool fills, grow to maturity as tadpoles without fear of being eaten by fish, and then live on the banks after the water is gone.
"This is one of the habitats that's really disappearing throughout New Jersey, but really in the Pinelands," Catania said - one of the reasons the Pine Barrens tree frog has been endangered for 30 years. "It's very easily affected by development."
This particular piece of land is called the Cold Spring Brook property because a small stream runs through it into Wells Mills Lake. That and the rolling hills characteristic of the area, but unique in the Pine Barrens, also made the land an attractive buy.
It also is adjacent to a parcel of open space the township owns, as well as the county's 910-acre Wells Mills Park. The fact that other protected land is nearby multiplies its attractiveness, county Planning Director David McKeon said.
But the land could have just as easily been developed, said Villinger, a senior planner with the county and coordinator for the Natural Lands Trust Fund.
On the other side of the pizza slice-shaped parcel are several single-family homes that mark the edge of the Brookville section of Barnegat Township. And the land's owners at one point planned to build a home there.
But with the freeholders' approval to purchase the property, Villinger said, he expects to close on it in a few months.
In the next month or so, the county also expects to close on four other properties, including more than 1,500 acres in the neighboring areas, and more than 30 acres the county also approved Wednesday for acquisition in Plumsted Township.
That will all be in addition to the 83 properties, totaling 7,473.5 acres, that the county already has preserved since the trust fund was created in 1991.
Of all those properties, McKeon, who was with the county when the trust fund started, could not think of any that features a pond like the one on the Cold Spring Brook property, but he said others could be hidden deep in the forests.
"This is the first one of these that I've seen," Villinger said, standing under one of the trees that curved its trunk to reach the sunlight coming down directly above the pool.
A few minutes later the sun retreated back behind the clouds, and the rain came down again to add some more water for the frogs.