By Sinisa Dragin and Radu-Sorin Marinas

MAHMUDIA, Romania (Reuters) - Birds and fish are slowly but surely returning to a part of Romania's picturesque Danube Delta that was drained by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1980s but has been returned by local communities to its natural wetland state.

With the help of the WWF environmental charity and funding from the European Union, some 900 hectares around Mahmudia, once drained to create farmland, have been reconnected to the region's network of channels and lakes.

Heavy earthmoving equipment was used to create new waterways - a boon not only for fishermen in one of Europe's poorest communities, but also for local tourist companies offering bird-watching trips.

"A lot of birds have migrated to the area and one doesn't need any more to travel long hours to go to other lakes and spot the birds," said Mahmudia deputy mayor Ion Meuta.

Some 300 bird species make their home in the 600,000-hectare Danube Delta, including pygmy cormorants, white-tailed eagles and glossy ibises. Egyptian white pelicans arrive every spring, and Arctic geese migrate here to escape the harsh winters of Northern Europe.

According to the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority, the area - a UNESCO heritage site - is the third most bio-diverse in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos Islands.

A decade-long fishing ban has been imposed to protect the endangered wild sturgeon, a species more ancient than the dinosaur.

"The sturgeon is the Delta's emblem," said breeding farmer Marilena Maereanu. "Last year I released 15,000 starry sturgeons into the Danube. In six or seven years they will start reproducing."

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)