Arid Australia supports extraordinary numbers of waterbirds. We show that the solution to this seeming paradox lies in considering the availability of temporary wetland habitat in the context of the birds dispersal capability and fluctuations in the abundance of wetlands in time and space. For species with large dispersal capabilities, the Lake Eyre Basin of central Australia, amongst the driest regions on the continent, has the highest habitat availability for waterbirds. Analyses of landscape structure show that the wetlands of the Lake Eyre Basin are highly interconnected and linked by broad pathways to wetter parts of south-eastern Australia. These analyses illustrate that organism traits and patch dynamics affect realised habitat availability and indicate that the processes that structure populations may operate at much larger spatial scales than those at which humans usually seek to manage the landscape.