Getting to know our grasses

Grasses are the most familiar plants, but few people recognise just how much they are both diverse and interesting. There are close to 700 species of grasses described from Kenya, and about 1,000 species in East Africa. Worldwide there are over 12,000 species and all grasses are part of a single plant family, the Poaceae. Humans, livestock and wildlife all benefit from grasses, most significantly from the food they provide. 

Waxbills, and other birds in the Estrilidae family, including including firefinches, pytilias and cordon-bleus, along with seedeaters feed mostly on grass seeds. While the seeds of grasses are typically rather tiny, they are an extremely rich source of food that is available in abundance when conditions are right. Other birds like guineafowl, francolins, and even the giant, majestic Ostrich will consume grass seeds when they are seasonally available. 

While I was working on the guide ‘Grasses of East Africa’, I spent a lot of time watching birds and other creatures interacting with grasses. One such occasion was on a visit to the Cynometra-Manilkara habitat of Arabuko-Sokoke Forest on Kenya’s north coast. It was one of those wonderful moments, following good rains, where carpets of grass had covered the sandy red soil. As the rains had been especially good, these grasses had flowered and set seeds. 

From a distance, with some friends, I watched as a flock of Crested Guineafowl moved slowly through the grass. This was slightly puzzling, as typically these flighty fowl flee on being spotted! Creeping closer, we were able to see that they were completely focused on picking off the ripening grass seeds. With incredible dexterity, they moved along pulling off individual seeds with a deft peck-and-tug motion. They were so focused on their task that we were able to get really close and watch them at work. Even the appearance of a Sokoke bushy-tailed mongoose, that dashed across the road, only elicited a brief squawk of alarm before they returned to their feast. 

Grasses also serve many different birds as an important source of material for building their nests. The weavers are the true artists at using grasses to create incredible works of art and shelter. I have had the pleasure of watching a number of different weaverbirds build their nests both out in the bush and around my house. 

The Vitelline Masked Weaver makes its nest almost entirely out of the leaves and stems of grasses, including tall Guinea Grass (Panicum maximum). Despite their nest-building being a noisy chaotic affair, with males competing, stealing and sabotaging each other, they harvest and carefully weave grass together to form a neat, compact oval-shaped nest. Another species, the White-Browed Sparrow- Weavers use dry grasses to 

build, dense, untidy nests. They are fond of nesting near people and their loud, scratchy calls are a part of life in many parts of Kenya. 

Copies of the ‘Grasses of East Africa’ are available from the Nature Kenya bookshop at the National Museums of Kenya at Ksh. 2,000

Insects too, live, feed and flourish within grasses, which in turn provide sustenance for a host of birds, reptiles, mammals and even other arthropods. Without the grasses, none of these creatures would be able to survive. 

As everyone who has lived and travelled in East Africa can attest, just a couple days of rain can turn an entire landscape green. Where there was dust and despair previously, life bounces and erupts with abundance. This first flush of growth and life is mostly thanks to grasses, which are one of the most resilient groups of plants on our planet. They have the ability to grow quickly and produce new shoots, allowing for new growth after just a little rain. 

For the past 30 years I’ve had the pleasure of studying and exploring this amazing group of plants. Grasses are not easily identified and, perhaps for this reason, they have been largely overlooked by even seasoned naturalists and ecologists. My hope in writing a general guide on grasses is to inspire people to pay them more attention, learn their natural history, and better understand their intricate connections with other species. 

This article by Dino Martins was first published in the Kenya Birding magazine, issue 16.


Local Bird Guides

Three guides from community birding groups from across the country, share some facts and tips, about their sites, and invite you to visit.

Ibrahim Malibe Hiribae, Tana Delta Conservation Network

The Tana Delta is a large complex area of floodplains, coastal forest patches, wetlands, grasslands, mangroves, and riverine forest. There are several good birding spots in the area. There is also the Tana River Primate Reserve, that is rich in biodiversity and rare species. To get around you have to use a speed boat, available for hire from the community. For accommodation, visitors have to camp in private farms, which welcome visitors. Though you should bring your own tents and food, catering services can be arranged. Delta Dunes, the only tourist lodge in the area (in which the local community holds shares), is currently under renovation.

The Tana Delta Conservation Network operates in the Tana Delta, and has four guides. For birding in the Tana Delta contact me on mobile +254 (0) 724 031 117, or by email:

Fees: Kenya Forest Service fees apply. Guiding fees are KES 1,000 per person/per day.

Key species: Collared Pratincole, African Skimmer(Western) Osprey, Red-necked Falcon. A draft bird checklist is available with TDCN and Nature Kenya.


John Maganga, Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Organisation

I am one of five bird guides in the Taita Hills, associated with the Dawida Biodiversity Conservation Organisation. We would be very pleased to take you birding in the Taita Hills. There are a number of small remnant cloud forests in the Taita hills—Ngangao, Vuria Hill, Mbololo, Iyale, Fururu, Chawia—that are home to interesting species, some being endemic to the Taita Hills. I recommend birding in the early morning hours as that is the best time to hear and see birds. 

Camping facilities are available at Ngangao Forest where the community resource centre is located. For birding in the Taita Hills contact Dawida birders on mobile: +254 (0) 712 329525, or on +254 (0) 719 885265. 

Fees: Forest entry fees per person/per day: Citizens KES 500 (Children KES 100), and Non-citizens KES 700.Guiding fees are KES 3500 per person per day.

Key species: Striped Pipit, Taita Apalis, local race of Stripe-cheeked Greenbul, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Taita White-eye, Orange Ground Thrush, Taita Thrush


Patrick Kurere, Friends of Nature Bogoria

Lake Bogoria is the deepest alkaline lake in Kenya, and has numerous hot springs. It is located in the Lake Bogoria National Reserve, which includes the lake and the surrounding area. The vegetation around the lake comprises of grasslands, thickets, and woodlands. The woodlands form an important habitat for the greater kudu and other mammals. 

Lake Bogoria can be hot during the day, and visitors should bring sun lotion and protective gear to shield against direct sun rays. Accommodation at Lake Bogoria ranges from 4-star spas to low budget resorts, like Zakayos Resort. 

Friends of Nature Bogoria is a group of 12 bird guides. Visitors can reach us on mobile: +254 (0) 720 385096, or on emails: fonbogoria@, 

Fees: Reserve fees per person/per day: Citizens KES 300 (Children KES 150), Residents KES 1,000, Non-residents USD 50. Guiding fees are negotiated between visitors and local bird guides, and depend on visitors specifications. 

Key species: Cape Teal, Greater Flamingo (hundreds), Lesser Flamingo (in the thousands), Black-winged Stilt, Pied Avocet, Kittlitz’s Plover, Little Stint, Ruff, Western Marsh Harrier 

This article first appeared in the Kenya Birding magazine, issue 16.   


A forest walk in the extraordinary Ngangao Forest

John Mwacharo visits this special place and tells of gigantic trees, rare butterflies, endemic birds and special plants.

The cool of the forest is apparent as soon as we step into Ngangao Forest. An aura of mystique permeates our overgrown passage through moss and lichen-clad trees. It is mid-morning. The sun above makes its way west, its light streaking through the thick canopy. Against the background of many forest sounds are the calls of Cabanis’s GreenbulRüppell’s Robin Chat, and White-starred Robin. Walking in single file, we venture into the enchanting forest.

Ngangao Forest is the second-largest of very few surviving moist forest fragments of the Taita Hills. It is located 10 km from Wundanyi town and is home to many plants and animals, including some found only in these hills. We press through the forest walking on the leaves, broken twigs, bark and decaying branches that litter the ground to form a thick spongelike layer. We observe countless insects and other creatures scurrying on the forest floor. There are scattered understorey plants, wild mushrooms and colourful butterflies.

A trek through this magnificent forest is a magical experience, a moment to treasure. Today we are lucky. We are in the company of John Maganga, a seasoned community bird guide. Maganga’s many years of guiding visitors through Ngangao have nurtured a personal connection with the forest. His vast knowledge of the forest’s plants, birds and other animals are unparalleled.

“Ngangao Forest is our jewel. Some of the plants and birds found here are quite rare,” notes Maganga as he leads us through a narrow descending forest trail.

A few metres ahead of us stands a gigantic tree. We pause for a while and let our eyes feast on this natural marvel. Its towering 52 metres leaves us speechless.

“Welcome to the Ngangao mother tree!” announces Maganga.

I struggle to get a good photo of the entire tree. After several attempts, I give up. The mother tree is too big to fit into a single photo frame! I strain to catch a glimpse of its crown.

Ngangao Forest mother tree

“This Newtonia buchananii is over 300 years old and not about to die anytime soon,” says Maganga.

Maganga goes on to say that, according to legend, the mother tree has mysteriously survived countless attempts to fell it, as evidenced by ‘cut’ marks on its ancient trunk.

After a couple of minutes of taking photos with the famous tree, we proceed to our next stop, a gigantic Aningeria adolfi tree. We are drawn to the tree’s hollow trunk that branches into three separate sections. The cavity, at its base, resembles a cave, big enough to fit two people.

“People here call this the cave tree,” Maganga explains.

Interior view of the Ngangao Forest cave tree.

Taking turns, we again pose for photos with this unique forest attraction. Moist forests once covered the Taita Hills. Over the years, these forests shrank into the existing scattered fragments on hilltops and ridges, that survive today. Gradual conversion of forest land to farms and settlements has over time led to this decline. Pressure from the dense human population surrounding the forests has left them extremely vulnerable.

Our adventure into Ngangao Forest with Maganga comes to an end after an hour or so. It has been an awe-inspiring journey of discovery into one of the area’s best-kept secrets.


Key species to watch for in Ngangao Forest

Crowned Eagle, Mountain BuzzardSilvery-cheeked Hornbill, Striped PipitTaita Apalis, Evergreen Forest WarblerStripe-cheeked Greenbul, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler, Taita White-eye, Orange Ground Thrush, Taita Thrush. Other special plants and animals include the small nocturnal Taita Mountain dwarf galago (found only in Taita Hills), the rare butterflies Papillio desmondi teita and Cymothoe teita; and wild coffee.

Taita Thrush


Visitor facilities at Ngangao Forest

The community manages an eco-resource centre and campsite in the forest. Community scouts stationed at the centre offer visitors guided tours at a small fee. For a spectacular view of Mount Kilimanjaro and the plains of Tsavo West National Park go to the viewpoint, located close to the forest. The best views are seen in the early mornings or late afternoons.


This article was first published in the Kenya Birding magazine, issue 16.