Discover Duette

A self-guided adventure through wild Florida

Merrie Lynn and Chick Parker
Merrie Lynn and Chick Parker
The “Discover Duette Self-Guided Adventure” is sponsored by Manatee Fish and Game Association and Manatee County’s Parks and Natural Resources Department. Special thanks to contributors Merrie Lynn Parker, Dick Eckenrod, Charlie Hunsicker, Johnny McLeod, Michael Elswick, Mark Proch, Aedan Stockdale, and Melissa Nell. 

The “Discover Duette Self-Guided Adventure” was created in memorial of Roy “Chick” Parker. Chick Parker was born and raised in Manatee County. An avid outdoors-man, he was appointed by the County Commissioners to serve on the ELMAC Advisory Committee that wrote the first land management plan for Duette and Emerson Point Preserves. He advocated tirelessly for a controlled hunt program at Duette. He is a Life Member of Manatee Fish and Game Association, Inc.

The Manatee Fish and Game Association was established in 1935. Its role is to serve as Stewards Conserving Our Resources and Environment (SCORE) by proactively participating with the community by leading, advising, funding, educating, promoting, practicing, and modeling sound practices to conserve fish and wildlife and its habitat. Contributions to Duette Preserve include contracting with The Nature Conservancy to do a complete inventory of plants and animals and to make suggestions included in the preserve’s Land Management Plan. In recent years, the Association has sponsored, in partnership with Manatee County’s Park and Natural Resource Department, four free annual wagon tours guided by professional naturalists and park rangers. The Association also provided matching funds donated for a fitting memorial to Chick Parker resulting in this self-guided tour material.

Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources is responsible for the management of over 27,000 acres of natural land. From coastal sand dunes to inland pine forests, the Department plans, maintains, and restores land selected for conservation. The Department also provides a wide variety of educational and volunteer programs within the County’s preserves and parks. As part of the Department’s educational outreach, County staff developed this tour. All creation of text copy, layout, and design of the tour was created in-house. Photos were provided by County staff and volunteers. 


White-tailed Deer by Michelle Swartz
White-tailed Deer by Michelle Swartz

Duette Preserve is Manatee County’s largest conservation land, with over 23,000 acres of habitat set aside for preservation. The property was purchased in 1986 by the County from phosphate mining companies via voter referendum. Since then, the property has expanded with several additional acquisitions, and includes both the North and East fork of the Manatee River, serving as a protective buffer around this portion of the watershed. 

While the land was acquired to protect the waters, the focus has broadened into a wider view of insuring a diverse and healthy system. Throughout this tour, preserve visitors will discover the wide variety of habitats within the preserve as well as key plants and animals that flourish in each of these areas. Unique historical features and stories from the preserve’s colorful past will be related, tying in the human experience to the site. The tour also includes visits to areas that showcase the many restoration and preservation projects that have been completed, and are currently ongoing, at the site. 

The “Discover Duette Self-Guided Adventure” was created in memory of Chick Parker, a longtime Manatee County resident and active member of Manatee Fish and Game Association. Together with his wife, Merrie Lynn, Chick was a driving force in first acquiring, then planning, protecting, and managing the site. His support and input assisted in the development of the site’s first management plan, a County managed controlled hunt program, and his guidance carried throughout the preserve’s development. 

We invite you to explore Duette, stepping into “wild Florida” and discovering the beauty of the state’s native habitat. 

Duette Landscape by George Quittner
Duette Landscape by George Quittner

Enjoying Duette Preserve

Visiting for the day? Know before you go! 

Here’s a list of items to bring on your adventure:

  • Water
  • Sunscreen
  • Snacks
  • Hat and other sun protective clothing
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • A camera
  • Cell phone
  • Map
  • Your Duette Preserve Self-Guided Adventure Book

Be aware that bathrooms are located at the Check Station only, so please plan accordingly. 


The Self-Guided Tour is intended to be accessible to vehicles, hikers, and bikers. The trails within the preserve are hard packed shell. One creek crossing will be required to complete the tour. Water is generally less than 1 foot deep, however during periods of high rain the trail may be closed if there is flooding. Four-wheel drive is not necessary to enjoy this tour, however other portions of the 20,000+ acre preserve are only accessible via four-wheel drive. 


Preserve Hours:

The Self-Guided Tour is available to hikers, bikers, and horse riders weekdays and weekends, when Duette Preserve is open to the public. Preserve hours are sunrise to sunset. Please note: The preserve is closed seasonally on various weekends for the annual Hunt Program. Please check current Hunt Program Schedule and any notifications about preserve closures.


Vehicle access is available on non Hunt Program Saturdays. Visitors driving into the preserve will need to first visit the Check Station and pay the daily fee to access the site.


Your visit to Duette Preserve can include a driving tour, hiking, biking, or horse riding (with proof of negative Coggin’s test). Picnicking is encouraged and allowed. The preserve also features a primitive campground, accessible for a small fee on non-hunt weekend Fridays and Saturdays. 


Please leave ATV’s, drones, alcohol, and glass containers, at home. These are not permitted in the preserve.

Discover Duette Trail Map

Stop 1: Check In To Adventure

The Check Station also serves as the base of operations for the Hunt Program, and photos and news for the year’s events can be found here. The Annual Hunt Program at Duette Preserve began in 1990. As a management technique, the allowance of hunting offers a unique method of thinning out herd animals, like the white tailed deer, and removing non-native invasive exotic animals, such as feral hogs, that can cause great damage to the natural habitat. The Hunt Program also offers participants to enjoy historic traditions and actively assist in the conservation of the site. Each year, safety is the paramount concern of the program and all participants undergo a Hunter Safety course as well as an orientation to the site. Bag limits are set as needed, using scientific methods to count and track herds and insure that the take of the entire program will support, rather than harm, the health of the wildlife at the site. Duette Preserve is the only Preserve or Park in the state that has a long running and successful Hunt Program managed entirely by County staff. 

Stop 2: Remnants of the Past

Wooden structures left behind

Southeastern Kestrel by Greg Hume
Southeastern Kestrel
by Greg Hume

There are signs here of past use from both humans and animals. Can you spot them? Look closely just beyond the trail, on the south side of the road, and you will spot an old wooden bridge. This time worn platform once carried men, horses, wagons, cattle, and even cars along the dusty trails through Duette. Before this site was a preserve, it was a small but bustling settlement with multiple homesteads and a thriving cattle herd. 

Beneath the bridge lays a small ditch, one of many that criss-crossed the landscape here. Significant parts of the landscape were “improved” for agricultural use. Human changes to the landscape included transforming the natural habitat into agricultural fields. Tomatoes and oranges were grown here in Duette and these ditches were created to help provide a more regular water flow for the farmers in the area. Part of the ongoing restoration of the preserve includes diverting or filling in many of the ditches in order to recreate the natural sheet flow, the movement of the water, over the land.

Beyond the bridge, to the west, stands a row of power poles. Gleaming gray in the sunlight, these concrete structures replaced the rough wooden telephone poles that once lined the trail. Yet a closer look will prove that the wooden poles still stand tall behind their concrete replacements. The wooden poles remain because of their benefit to wildlife. With few tall dead trees, or snags, remaining on the landscape Duette’s local cavity nesters had to get creative. Thanks to some enterprising woodpeckers, these telephone poles had quite a few nests in them. While the woodpeckers have long since moved out, the holes left behind can still support other creatures. 

Southeastern Kestrel by Tom Koerner
Southeastern Kestrel
by Tom Koerner, USFWS

Before these poles could be moved, the rare Southeastern Kestrels nesting inside had to fledge and leave the nest. The poles were removed but left on site so that the returning birds could still use them. Florida Power and Light (FPL), the company responsible for the poles, recognized their significance as habitat for the birds and partnered with the County to reinstall them near the old nesting sites. They also provided additional nest spots in the form of wooden boxes carefully affixed to the new poles.

The preservation of the Southeastern Kestrel habitat is an excellent example of the County’s efforts to partner in order to protect wildlife. By working closely with FPL on a mandatory project, staff maintained habitat and expanded it further to support wildlife. 

Stop 3: The Mighty Manatee

The East Fork of the Manatee River

Red maple by Nachuwm Hernandez
Red Maple
by Nachuwm Hernandez

The slow moving stream below may not seem impressive, but the dark calm waters are actually part of a 36-mile long waterway that terminates in a wide mouth emptying into Tampa Bay. This is the East Fork of the mighty Manatee River, one of the area’s richest sources of drinking water for wildlife and humans alike.

Coastal Plain Willow by Mark Proch
Coastal Plain Willow
by Mark Proch

While this particular section of the river may seem quiet, the life here is vibrant and busy. Enterprising spiders stretch their webs out across the gaps in the trees, hoping to catch juicy insects. In spring and summer, dragonflies buzz around, newly emerged from their water based nymph stage. Examine the willow trees lining the banks, and look for evidence of the presence of viceroy caterpillars. Have the leaves been munched? These native plants are a host plant for the viceroy’s larval form and also commonly grow in wet areas along rivers. Their presence, here, alongside red maple trees and buttonbush, indicate a riparian – or river’s edge – habitat. 

The shape of a river changes over time, and the size of the Manatee itself has fluctuated as the years have passed. This section in particular was once deeper and wider, a favorite spot for the locals to visit and considered to be one of the best swimming holes around. This river has also changed from human influence. Development and agriculture have ditched and transformed many of its feeder creeks, affecting the flow of water within the watershed. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff from farms and homes has resulted in a decrease in the quality of the water too. Anticipating potential problems such as these, the County acquired the land at Duette in order to protect a portion of the river. 

American Alligator by Matt Roback
American Alligator
by Matt Roback

Stop 4: A Timeline of Change

Transitional habitats transform into forests

Tarflower by Shirl Hamilton
by Shirl Hamilton

Sometimes, things are not always as they seem. At first glance, this area may look like a grassy prairie. Indeed, this habitat does seem to be devoid of trees; the legacy of the widespread harvest of the valuable longleaf pine timber that once covered much of the Southeast. In the fall, it will be filled with brilliantly bushy lopsided Indian grass and chalky bluestem swaying their fluffy tops in the breeze. Brilliantly hued wildflowers pop up, with splashes of yellow and pink attracting colorful butterflies. Indeed most of the plants here grow low to the ground and, with the exception of the pointy palmettos mixed in, few trees can be found.

But return in a few years and the landscape may tell an entirely different story. The habitat here is a transitional one, moving from one type of system and transforming into another. Historically, much of Duette Preserve’s lands were either scrub, mixed hardwood forest, or flatwoods. This particular area was flatwoods up until the 1920s, and part of the site’s restoration is to return it to that habitat. While this area may currently look like a grassland, closer inspection will reveal baby pine trees pushing up and ready to reclaim the area as a full flatwoods. Before the trees, and the land, fully mature though it will move through a succession of habitats as it undergoes growth toward its final form.

As the trees become more dominant, the land will take on the appearance of a savanna, or a habitat that is a mix of both grasses and trees. Succession, the process of change in the species structure of the ecological community over time, can happen due to a variety of changes. Disturbances, such as natural events like fire and weather events, or human driven like logging, drive the change. Here at Duette, succession happens most often after prescribed fire has been applied to the land. In this area, fire will clear the way for new trees to grow, providing space and activating seeds that are heat dependent. Because fire is part of the land’s natural cycle, many species depend upon it to grow. Species are adapted to survive fire; as the baby pines sprout and then slowly grow, their grass stage has thick needles to protect them from the fire. As they get older, thick bark serves the same purpose. Since the fire moves through the system in a mosaic pattern, not everything is burned, insuring that resources are left for the wildlife that inhabit the system. Over time, regular use of prescribed fire, mimicking the natural cycle of fire that would normally occur here, will help to transform this area back to its original flatwoods state.

Lopsided Indian Grass by Mary Keim
Lopsided Indiangrass 
by Mary Keim

Stop 5: Made in the Shade

Dinner Hammock

Red Lichen by Melissa Nell
Red Lichen
by Melissa Nell

Hammocks are Florida’s original air conditioning. Many pioneer families selected hammocks for home sites, and Dinner Hammock is no different. A home once stood just past the pavilion, and the early Duette homesteaders lived and worked under these very same oaks. To this day, humans still appreciate the shady spot, and refer to it as “Dinner Hammock” or “The Nooning Spot” for its popularity as a place for picnics.

Florida Air Plant by Shirl Hamilton
Florida Air Plant
by Shirl Hamilton

This hammock is like a little island of trees surrounded by other upland habitats. Here the most common species is live oak and, looking out past the trees, not much ground cover can be found. It may seem that this area is devoid of plant life but, cast your gaze upwards. Along the branches of the mighty oaks an entire colony of epiphytes flourish. These plants are growing on the oaks but do not cause it any harm; their roots only help them hold on to the trees. Instead of getting their nutrients and water from the soil, they survive by using their leaves to take in both moisture and nutrients from air and rain. Their leaves have tiny white fuzzy hairs called trichomes that help catch moisture and dust, allowing the plant to feed and hydrate itself. The oaks at Dinner Hammock are home to multiple epiphyte species including air plants and occasionally orchids.

Another unique organism living in the hammock also loves to grow on the oaks. In this case, though, the creature is not one single plant or even a plant at all; rather it is a complex relationship between two organisms functioning as a stable, single unit. While they may look like little plants, the lichens growing at Dinner Hammock are, instead, a partnership between a fungus and an algal or cyanobacterium. The fungus cannot create its own food, so it forms a symbiotic relationship with the other entity in order to provide itself with a constant source of nourishment. Dinner Hammock is home to numerous different lichens including examples of crusting, leafy, and branching types. 

Live Oak
Live Oak

Stop 6: Florida Flatwoods

Life in the pines

Longleaf Pine by Mark Proch
Longleaf Pine
by Mark Proch

Our tour has already traveled past one area that will become flatwoods, now we visit a more mature growth of pines. The trees here are a mix of longleaf and slash pines, and together they are the most commonly found pine trees here at Duette Preserve. The pine flatwoods is one of the most extensive terrestrial ecosystems in the state and, indeed, was once very prevalent in the US with large forested areas running from Texas all the way north to New York. Here the land has little topography; it’s relatively flat and uniform. Although these are considered “uplands” during the rainiest parts of the year they may be temporarily flooded due to their poorly drained sandy soil. Because the tree canopy here is open, lots of sunlight reaches below, and a variety of plants can be found here including spikey saw palmetto and grasses like wire grass and lovegrass. While the sparse canopy does provide some shade, the sun is not obscured as it would be in an oak hammock or other areas, and so it is common to see a variety of plants here. 

 One of the land management tools used in the preserve to keep uplands systems like the pine flatwoods healthy is the application of prescribed fire. Manatee County’s land managers receive extensive training to carefully plan and execute fires intended to improve the habitat. Just as a doctor would write a prescription to improve the health of a patient the Rangers survey the land and write prescriptions or plans to allow the safe use of fire to achieve the desired result. 

 Because many of these communities are fire dependent, it is important that the fires happen with as regular frequency as would be normal for the habitat, around 1 to 10 years depending on the habitat type. With the arrival of humans and well-meaning campaigns such as Smokey the Bear, fire exclusion has meant many areas have gone without burns for long periods of time. The absence of fire allows fuel to build up and this can result in catastrophic wildfires and/or degradation of habitat as the land becomes overgrown. The exclusion of fire can also allow exotic invasive species to take over an area, growing unchecked. 

Prescribed Fire by Melissa Nell
Prescribed Fire
by Melissa Nell

 Manatee County maintains an active burn program in many of its natural lands. Of all the preserves Duette supports the most extensive fire dependent habitats in the county. Five to eight thousand acres of land are treated with fire here each year. With each prescribed fire carefully planned, managed, and carried out by trained staff. Even when burns are conducted the preserve is often still open with few trail closures or impacts as the fires naturally cycle through. During your trip, keep an eye out along the trail to see if you can spot areas that have been recently burned. It may surprise you to see how quickly the land bounces back with fresh new green shoots pushing up through the black earth days after the fire passes through the habitat. 

Rangers use prescribed fire to mimic the natural cycle

Stop 7: The Ford

Crossing the River’s feeder creek

Crayfish by Aedan Stockdale
by Aedan Stockdale

Prepare to ford the creek! Depending upon the time of year, your adventure may continue over a dry creek bed, a trickling stream, or a deceptively deep rushing flow. Rainstorms and periodical droughts influence the level of water here at the creek. Conditions at Duette Preserve can be highly variable due to changes in weather and precipitation. Because of this, we recommend visitors check our website and/or Facebook pages for current updates on accessibility.

 This water body is one of many feeder creeks that supports the Manatee River, adding to its flow as it travels westward toward Tampa Bay. A tributary to the East Fork of the River, the inclusion of this creek within Duette Preserve’s borders means that it too is protected from direct source pollution.

 As the water flows by, the color may be surprising. Does it appear blue or a darker color? The water here, and at the East Fork, will usually appear to have a dark brown or yellow hue. This is not due to pollution, but rather to a natural phenomenon. The tannins from decaying vegetation such as leaves and acorns leach into the water dying it a dark color, staining it almost like a tea or coffee. Streams that have this type of coloration are known as blackwater streams. 

 In the late spring, this area explodes with color. A large and showy native wildflower, the Southern blue flag iris, is a wetland plant and prefers growing along the creek in the damp nutrient-rich soil. This area often features many of the purple-blue blooms signifying the start of warmer summer weather.

Dixie Iris by Damon Moore
Dixie Iris
by Damon Moore
Poison Ivy by Melissa Nell
Poison Ivy
by Melissa Nell
Buttonbush by Melissa Nell
by Melissa Nell

Stop 8: Fleeting Waters and Sandy Days

Ephemeral ponds and scrub habitat

Pickerelweed by George Quittner
by George Quittner

 South of the trail, stretching beyond the tree line, is a darkened area. At first glance, this may simply seem like another section of grasses in the prairie that is a slightly different color. However, a short five minute hike will reveal that this unique spot is actually a small wetland, an ephemeral pond. 

This isolated wetland may be wet during your visit, or it might be dry. An ephemeral pond, this small depression occasionally dries out, making the freshwater in it a fleeting feature. While the water may not last long, these ponds are very important in Duette Preserve’s drier uplands habitat, like scrub and flatwoods, because they provide a much needed source of water. During a visit watch for birds such as ducks and waders hunting in the pond for food, and even white tailed deer, raccoons, opossums, bobcats, and armadillos all of whom come to the pond to drink.

Oak Toad by Melissa Nell
Oak Toad
by Melissa Nell

One thing that won’t be found in the pond are predatory fish. Because the ponds dry up periodically fish cannot survive. And that means that this is the perfect place for a variety of amphibians to lay their eggs and develop. It is common to find multiple types of amphibians utilizing and sharing a single wetland and even a small one can produce thousands of young. Once they complete their larval stage, the juveniles move out into the uplands as adults. 

Gopher Tortoise by Billie Knight
Gopher Tortoise
by Billie Knight

The closest upland habitat to this pond is the scrub. This system is the highest and driest elevation in the preserve. It features well-drained, sandy soil and, because the water drains quickly through the soil, the plants have adapted to survive on very little water and may look small and scruffy. Many of the small trees you see here, though, are much older than the towering pines in other sections of the preserve. The wildlife, too, take advantage of the loose soil and many that inhabit the scrub are burrowers, or fossorial. As there is little shade in the scrub, many of the native creatures spend a great deal of time underground, emerging only at night when the temperatures are cooler or not at all. 

More than 360 species use gopher tortoise burrows

Stop 9: Florida Scrub-Jay Heaven

Rare Florida Scrub-Jays

Florida Scrub-Jay by Billie Knight
Florida Scrub-Jay
by Billie Knight

The Florida scrub habitat is home to several endemic species, animals that live nowhere else on Earth except for one particular region. The most famous endemic scrub species is the Florida scrub-jay. This gregarious blue and gray bird was once a common sight in Florida’s uplands. But due to habitat loss and degradation the population has dwindled. Here at Duette Preserve the Florida scrub-jay is a fantastic success story. When the preserve lands were first acquired in the 1980s, scientists estimated that the site’s remaining birds would disappear by the 1990s if steps were not taken to preserve them. The County actively implemented a plan to remove and reduce trees that had grown too tall in the birds’ preferred habitat and engaged in other management activities as well. The birds will only be present in areas of scrub that are healthy, with trees and shrubs at the appropriate height for this type of habitat. When the trees become too tall, predatory birds move in and the jays will leave. Soon, the Florida scrub-jay families in the area expanded and the population in Duette Preserve stabilized and is continuing to grow. 

Florida Scrub-Jay by George Quittner
Florida Scrub-Jay
by George Quittner

 Florida scrub-jays are considered a keystone species in the scrub habitat because they play a vital role in planting new trees. By caching hundreds of oak acorns each year, the birds create new plants from the acorns they fail to relocate. When the trees mature they provide new habitat for the birds, and their acorns provide food for numerous creatures, benefiting many of the scrub residents.

 One of the management tools utilized to maintain the scrub habitat is prescribed fire. Many of Florida’s habitats are fire dependent, requiring fire at some point in time to support natural processes such as growth of new plants. In the scrub, fires occur about every 4 to 10 years, less frequently than in the flatwoods, but still remain an important event. For many years at Duette, fire was excluded from the ecosystem, resulting in areas that became overgrown and piled high with combustible fuels. Manatee County’s progressive prescribed fire program was developed to assist in restoring the land, eliminating fuel that could lead to wildfires, and re-establishing a more natural fire cycle. 

The Florida Scrub-Jay lives in family groups

Stop 10: Manmade and Manufactured

Planted trees create habitat

Longleaf Pine by Mark Proch
Longleaf Pine
by Mark Proch

Take a moment to look at the trees spreading out before you. Does anything appear unusual about them? If you guessed that they are growing in nearly perfect rows you are correct, and that is certainly most unusual for a grouping of natural trees. This phenomenon is not something that is unique or unexplainable; each tree here was planted by humans. 

 The trees here are all longleaf pines. Duette Preserve’s many acres have had multiple owners and caretakers over the years. This has resulted in different approaches to caring for these areas, and a variety of styles of management. In some places, like this section of the preserve and closer to the check station, the Florida Forest Service helped to restore habitat by planting hundreds of trees. 

 Much of Duette, like much of Florida and the southeastern United States, was once covered in longleaf pine trees. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, much of the US’s pine forests were first tapped for turpentine, and then completely cleared for the lumber industry. Turpentine was created from the resin of the pine tree. Workers would slash the tree, letting the resin collect into a cup or bowl attached to the tree. This sap would then be distilled into pitch, a commodity with a national demand, famous for its use as “naval stores” for caulking holes in wooden ships and coating sailing rigging to help it last longer on ocean-going vessels. In addition to its use in the naval industry, turpentine appeared in a variety of products from Vicks VapoRub and makeup to furniture polish and first aid salves. Once the trees stopped producing the resin, they were harvested for the lumber industry. “Heart Pine” from longleafs was a favorite for cabin construction, and timber from the trees also was heavily used in ship construction, and the stumps were harvested for gunpowder. 

Pileated Woodpecker by Michele Swartz
Pileated Woodpecker
by Michele Swartz

 The Florida Forest Service’s work at Duette, along with a large scale County-led initiative, has contributed greatly to re-establishing hundreds of acres of longleaf pine forest. While it will take some time for the trees to reach maturity, their presence here is already recreating the habitat once lost. 

 Thinning 1/3 each decade leaves behind a natural tree canopy and number of trees per acre that closely resembles a native mature longleaf pine forest. Tree harvest also returns income put back to work in managing the preserve.