Birds have remained the dominant model for studying the mechanisms of animal navigation for decades, with much of what has been discovered coming from laboratory studies or model systems. The miniaturisation of tracking technology in recent years now promises opportunities for studying navigation during migration itself (migratory navigation) on an unprecedented scale. Even if migration tracking studies are principally being designed for other purposes, we argue that attention to salient environmental variables during the design or analysis of a study may enable a host of navigational questions to be addressed, greatly enriching the field. We explore candidate variables in the form of a series of contrasts (e. g. land vs ocean or night vs day migration), which may vary naturally between migratory species, populations or even within the life span of a migrating individual. We discuss how these contrasts might help address questions of sensory mechanisms, spatiotemporal representational strategies and adaptive variation in navigational ability. We suggest that this comparative approach may help enrich our knowledge about the natural history of migratory navigation in birds.