Puffin, Iceland | Brent Stephenson

Meet the Expert: Expedition Leader & Ornithologist Brent Stephenson

May 5, 2020|Blog Post

We recently had the opportunity to do a quick Q & A with Expedition Leader & Ornithologist Brent Stephenson to learn more about his background, interests, favorite expedition moments, travel bucket list, and more. We hope you enjoy discovering more about one of our expert expedition team members!

Where are you from and where have you lived?

I was born and raised in New Zealand. I lived in New Zealand until about three years ago when I started dating Lisa Kelley, who is an American and from Buffalo, New York. Lisa worked on ships for many years and is now the Director of Operations at the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), of which Zegrahm is one of the founding members. 

We now live together in Buffalo, and we will be moving to Stowe, Vermont later this year.  

Picture of Brent Stephenson

Tell us about yourself—what path led you to becoming a Zegrahm Leader?

I grew up with a love of the outdoors. By the time I was six or seven I was very interested in birds and took my first bird photos with an old film camera when I was about eight. Very early on, I realized I wanted to study birds and so that became my focus. I finished high school and went to Massey University in Palmerston North where I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology and Environmental Science, a Masters in Ecology (studying a small native owl, the morepork), and then a PhD in Zoology (studying Australasian gannets). During my PhD, I started a company with a friend conducting bird tours around New Zealand—Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ—and became interested in tourism and guiding. One thing led to another and I started to work on expedition ships in November 2005. After a few years, I was introduced to some of the folks at Zegrahm Expeditions, and here I am now.

What other jobs, positions or credentials do you have?  

I still co-own Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ, and I own a photography and consultancy company in New Zealand. For the latter, I do bird monitoring work and other consulting, as well as photography. Each summer I return to New Zealand to lead birding tours—last summer, we ran the equivalent of nine 21-day tours through the country. 

What other fields are you passionate about?   

I love anything outdoors, wildlife of any description, photography, and conservation. I’m passionate about the environment and how people can lessen their impact on the planet. I am particularly interested in seabirds and their conservation.  

When my friend and Wrybill co-owner Sav Savill and I rediscovered the supposedly extinct New Zealand storm-petrel in 2003, I realized how little we know about this part of the natural world. I’m also a keen mountain biker, love to brew (and drink) my own beer, and I enjoy getting to grill with my Big Green Egg grill.

Picture of Birds of New Zealand BookCan you tell us about some of the publications you’ve worked on?  

I co-authored the book ‘Birds of New Zealand: A Photographic Guide’, published in 2013.  Photos of mine have appeared in lots of magazines and books around the world and one of my images was the cover of National Geographic magazine (January 2018, UK edition).

Are you a part of any organizations?

Birds New Zealand (formerly Ornithological Society of New Zealand). 

What excites you about working for Zegrahm Expeditions? 

There are two things that really excite me about working with Zegrahm Expeditions. Firstly, the itineraries are second to none. If you want to travel to a place and see it really well with the greatest number of options for exploration, whether you are a birder, a photographer, a history buff, or just love traveling with like-minded people, then the itineraries that Zegrahm puts together are the best. There are no corners cut—the best experience possible is there for the taking.  

Secondly, the field staff. There is not a more passionate, close-knit group of people with such a broad and deep knowledge of the world working in this industry than the people at Zegrahm Expeditions. Their passion, knowledge, and enthusiasm are all things that guests come to love about our trips and our company. Having traveled with many Zegrahm guests more than once, it becomes like a great big family, traveling the world from one amazing place to the next.

What is your favorite Zegrahm memory?  

There really are many magical moments that I can remember from my near decade of working with Zegrahm Expeditions. It’s really hard to single one out. There are moments like standing on the top of a seabird cliff on the Isle of May in beautiful light, photographing black-legged kittiwakes, razorbills, and puffins flying in and around. Or landing on an isolated unpopulated island in the Pacific that we have never been to before and finding something rare.  

But the moment that probably stands out in my mind is finally getting to see the Henderson Island crake, a small, blackish flightless bird (it’s not the most beautiful or charismatic of birds) only found on Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Group. Having missed the island on my first trip almost a decade earlier, and then missing the second time I was supposed to land there due to weather, the third time was lucky for me. All the birders were able to experience it and we even found a nest with several eggs. 

Can you tell us about a time that you were on a Zegrahm expedition that ended up takingan unexpected turn or made an unexpected discovery that took you off the planned trail? 

Picture of Napasssorsuaq GreenlandAgain, it’s hard to single out particular moments. There are often “wow” moments on each of our voyages as a result of the preparedness, great team, and everyone’s desire to be adventurous. For example, waking people up at midnight to come out on deck to see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) on our recent Path of the Vikings Voyage comes to mind. On that trip, we also took the ship, our first charter with one of the new-build ships—Le Champlain—into an uncharted fjord on the Greenland coast, exploring with a Zodiac to do soundings ahead of the ship. 

Or, on our recent Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand Voyage, we took advantage of calm weather to take an incredible Zodiac cruise to see rockhopper penguins and light-mantled sooty albatross on the usually rough western coast of Campbell Island. This was a location most of the staff had never seen before and we managed to find a very ‘out of place’ erect-crested penguin in amongst the rockhoppers. Erect-crested penguins are normally found only on the Bounties and Antipodes Islands, a long way to the east of Campbell Island, so to see this bird at Campbell was fantastic, especially for those onboard who keep a list of all of the penguin species they have seen (there are generally considered to be 18 species). 

What non-for-profits or causes do you support or feel strongly about?  

One of the main non-profits I support at this stage is the World Land Trust. This organization provides a range of carbon and conservation initiatives for companies or individuals. Sir David Attenborough has been a patron since 2003, which in my mind puts them and their organization at the head of the table.

What are your top three countries or regions in the world to explore? 

Picture of Polynesia by Brent Stephenson

  1. The Arctic: I love the unexpected nature of the Arctic, the changing weather, the ever-changing ice, and the challenge of searching for iconic wildlife. Whilst encompassing a massive area and several different countries, this part of the world is so vast that you can still travel to places few people have ever been before. On top of this, the wildlife is always a challenge to find, but spectacular when you do find it. 
  2.  Sub-Antarctic Islands: Whether it’s incredible South Georgia with king penguin colonies that stretch as far as the eye can see, the amazing Falkland Islands with such diversity and history or the New Zealand sub-antarctic islands with amazing penguins and diversity of seabirds, they are all rugged and windswept and their rewards are spectacular and life-changing.
  3.  Central Pacific islands: Places like the Marquesas & Tuamotu Islands, the Pitcairn Group, and Cook Islands. They are beautiful idyllic islands with wonderful people, interesting endemic birds (often with very small population sizes), some vast seabird colonies, and incredible snorkelling. 

What’s left on your explorer’s bucket list/where do you still want to go that you haven’t been yet?  

Picture of Namibia Sand DunesToo many places to mention! My current top picks would be India to spot tigers and snow leopards, Namibia for its scenery and wildlife, and the Pantanal for jaguar and bird sightings. There’s also a whole bunch of birding I need to do around North America. 

What does being a part of the Zegrahm family mean to you? 

I feel very privileged to be a part of the Zegrahm family. As I mentioned, there is no other expedition staff quite like those who are part of this family. Because we are a relatively small company, we run a small number of trips and require fewer staff than many other companies, so we get to work with each other regularly. This creates a very different atmosphere, whereby we actually are like a family and this is something that is definitely noticed, and loved, by our guests. They too get to see us more regularly if they travel with us multiple times. At the start of a trip, we all fall back into being together and at the end of a trip we all say see you in “X” location, because invariably we know where and when we will see each other, and all our repeat guests, again in the future. 

Who is the Zegrahm explorer?  

The Zegrahm explorer is someone who is inquisitive, intelligent, and passionate about travel and understanding the world. And hey, if they are a birder as well, even better!