Floods are a frequent but irregular feature of Australia's dryland river catchments. We investigated changes in abundances of waterbirds in north western New South Wales with changes in wetland distribution at local, catchment and broad scales. The abundance of most functional groups of waterbirds changed in response to broad scale changes in wetland distribution, while local abundance remained highly variable. Patterns of abundance varied among functional groups of waterbirds, with some immediately responding to changes in wetland distribution and area flooded, and others apparently responding to sequences of wetting and drying. In Australia, the main conservation issue for waterbirds is water and its use across the landscape and not the spatial arrangement of any fixed array of reserves established to protect them.