His colleagues were swatting deer flies and chatting about the moss and microbes under their feet, but their English, soil ecologist Fung Hu of Nanjing, China, acknowledged, was proving difficult for him.

And so Fung, 51, trailed behind, photographing the vast, windswept meadow in the New Jersey Pinelands where they all stood.

"Very sandy soil," he observed.

Indeed. And that's about all many New Jerseyans know of the 1.1 million-acre ecosystem known as the Pinelands.

But to members of the international Soil Ecology Society, who toured its meadows, bogs, hummocks, and hilltops Wednesday, the "barrens" of New Jersey are anything but.

"Astonishing," marveled Phil Murray, a researcher from southwest England. "We don't have anything like this in the U.K."

"Amazing," said Sindhu Jagadamma, 41, an Indian-born soil ecologist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Wednesday was literally a field day for these scientists, who were gathered last week for a four-day conference of their society at Rutgers-Camden.

About 50 of the 125 participants had elected to take a six-hour bus tour of the Pinelands, hosted by Dennis Gray, manager of the university's Pinelands field station.

First stop was the 9,000-acre Franklin Parker Preserve in Woodland Township, Burlington County, a vast and beautiful expanse of wetlands reaching to the horizon. It had been a cranberry farm before the New Jersey Conservation Foundation acquired it in 2003.

"They're interested in bringing back the natural wetlands and species diversity," Gray told the group as they stepped from the bus into bright sunlight and a welcoming committee of deer flies.

Cranberry growers had "sculpted the land" for decades and "manipulated it for water," he said, leading them along a rutted trail atop shallow gullies - some dotted with lily pads - that once made up a dike system that flooded the bogs at harvest time.

Farther along, he pointed out a low stand of newly planted Atlantic white cedar, but by then the group was stretched out over 100 yards.

With Fung and other stragglers off taking photos, only a few were in earshot as Gray explained how pitch pines respond to forest fires by throwing off seeds that quickly replant.

"Its strategy is not to be a competitor," he said. "It's to be a stress tolerator."

Most of his audience had separated into small groups, pointing to the ground and discussing the things that warm the hearts of soil ecologists, like the role of nitrogen in "ectomycorrhizal fungal decomposition."

There was talk, too, of endophytes and saprotrophs, Brassicaceae and Cruciferae. Was this sandwort? Was that marilandica or hudsonia?

And what about that moss - or was it fungus?

"Ecto or endo?" wondered Edith Allen, a professor of plant ecology at the University of California, Riverside.

"Would a magnifier help?" asked Russell Juelg, a land steward for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, pulling out a 20-power lens.

The Soil Ecology Society was founded in 1987, said Dave Coleman, a white-moustached University of Georgia professor.

"There was a feeling that most ecologists were working above ground, but that not enough attention was being paid to the processes in soil, where so much is happening," he said.

The society has 350 members worldwide and convenes every other year, said Coleman, one of its founders.

Then it was back to the bus, and a 15-minute drive to a rise on Route 72. Gray got out first with a small shovel in hand and led them to a clearing by the road.

"The ocean's that way," he said, pointing downhill toward Long Beach Island, about 20 miles to the east. "We're at about 120 feet altitude, in an area called the Pine Plains.

"But a lot of things are wrong," he said. Fish markets once sat here, he said, and their discarded clamshells, now pebble-size, had radically changed the soil. "A lot of invasive species got established," he said, pointing out stands of bamboo and nonnative plantain.

With his shovel, Gray dug a pit about four feet deep to show a cross-section of the soil, which everyone recognized, of course, as "podzolic."

The top, dark layer of about eight inches was made up of decomposed roots and leaves, he said. The next foot of pale white sand had been leached by rain of its organic materials, and the reddish soil below was colored by the presence of iron and aluminum oxides.

"There's a lot of debate about why pitch pines are dwarf," Gray told them.

"Aluminum toxicity? The hard pan of clay? Selected by frequent fires? There's all sorts of theories," he said, "but it's never been resolved."

As the group prepared to board the bus again, Jesse Sadowsky showed the driver a handful of moss he'd found and asked whether he had a container.

"I had some chicken salad in this," the driver said, showing him a plastic zip bag.

Sadowsky, a doctoral candidate at the University of New Hampshire, assured him it would be fine and stuffed the moss inside.

They headed east on 72 before turning onto Whiting Road (County Road 539) where they rolled 6.5 miles through pine forest - some of it new growth sprung up since a controlled burn in March - before the bus pulled mysteriously to the side.

Moments later, the group was walking single-file on a path flanked by tall blueberry bushes into the 29,000-acre Greenwood Forest Wildlife Management Area in Lacey Township, Ocean County. They emerged onto a low, zigzagging boardwalk.

The bog below, Gray said - sticking his hand in the water to show it was just wrist-deep - had been created out of cedar swamp a century ago by the harvesting of sphagnum moss.

Today it is home to a variety of plant materials, he said, pointing out the orchid known as "grass pink" and the insect-eating bladderwort. "It's got an air bladder with a hair trigger," he said. "An insect lands and it sucks it in."

Then, crouching down, he pointed the scientists to a cluster of tiny green threads rising above the muck.

"This is curly grass fern, a globally rare species," he said. "It's found in the Pine Barrens and almost nowhere else."

"Fascinating," declared Megan Steinweg, 29, an Oak Ridge researcher who studies carbon cycling at a peat bog in Minnesota.

"It's my first time in New Jersey, ever," she said. "This is not the New Jersey we see on TV."

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841, doreilly@phillynews.com, or follow @doreillyinq on Twitter.