(WVUE) - Spring brings a population explosion to Louisiana's beaches, marshes and swamps from thousands of pelicans building nests on barrier islands to pink roseate spoonbills dotting cypress trees.
The state supports more than 200 species of birds, according to Audubon Louisiana. However, many of them are like tourists on an extended stay, birds that migrate thousands of miles, including a grueling several hundred mile jaunt over the Gulf of Mexico.
Exhausted from their flight, many of the birds find a rest stop south of Lafayette at the Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary, Audubon's oldest and largest sanctuary.
"It's their jump-off point when they cross the Gulf and it's the first land they hit when they come back." said Timmy Vincent, senior manager of Rainey.
The sanctuary, which is accessible only by boat, spans 26,000 acres in Vermilion Parish. Crabs, shrimp and countless fish species spend a portion of their young lives in this marshy nursery.
"Without these wetlands, you wouldn't have the diversity of seafood that we have here," Vincent said.
The sanctuary is named for Paul J. Rainey, a wealthy businessman and outdoorsman who hunted big game in Africa and owned thousands of acres along the Louisiana coast. After Rainey died suddenly in 1923, his family donated a chunk of the land to Audubon under the theory that it would last forever.
More than 80 years later in 2005, Hurricane Rita illustrated the challenge that now entails, as it barreled through the marsh and rolled up grass and dirt like a carpet.
"It went from vegetated marsh to open water overnight," Vincent said.
Rainey sits on the boundary of the Chenier Plain, the sandy beaches, ridges and mud flats that form southwestern most Louisiana.
"Our marsh doesn't really sink as much as (it) dissolves," said Karen Westphal, coastal project manager for Audubon Louisiana
While the Gulf eats at the shoreline, hurricanes and everyday winds create large ponds inside the marsh.
"We're being eaten from the inside out," said Douglas Meffert, Executive Director of Audubon Louisiana.
Meffert said Audubon has taken a proactive approach to restoration rather than waiting on the state to involve the land owner at the tail end.
"We're at the front end," Meffert said. "So, it happens better, it happens faster and it happens bigger."
Audubon staffers recently provided a tour of one area where a dredging project built back some of the land lost in Hurricanes Rita and Ike.
"If they had stood here five years ago, this would have been open water."
Over the past five years, 24 projects have either wrapped up or have won funding, thanks in part to a cooperative arrangement with nearby land owners. Audubon has teamed up with the McIlhenny Company- maker of Tabasco - Sagrera Lands and Vermilion Corporation in an effort to increase their clout as they compete for projects.
Meffert said this "living laboratory" attacks the problem with a variety of restoration methods. Terraces - small, narrow islands - slow the flow of water and protect shorelines as land builds up around them. Dredging is usually done on an industrial scale, involving a giant ship sucking sand and dirt from a water bottom. Audubon used a couple of small dredges to pump new land from a nearby canal that is inaccessible to large vessels. A $21 million dollar project that recently won state and federal approval aims to fill back part of Coles Bayou.
"We've got to hold onto what we've got as best as possible," Meffert said, "because if we lose it, it's going to be harder to get it back."
Audubon hopes it methods will serve as a model for other private landowners, who together, control 85 percent of Louisiana's coast.